Does Tesco use prison labour? (probably not intentionally).

On Sunday night news broke that a schoolgirl had found a Christmas card purchased from Tesco with a message inside from Shanghai Qingpu prison, the story was first published by the Times on its website and was soon picked up by other newspapers and TV channels. For those of us that could not imagine what a note written in a Christmas card might look like, the paper kindly reproduced it for us as did, the daily mail. The BBC showed a pixelated version of the note forcing us to use our imagination despite the fact it was probably not in their possession. All pretty cloak and dagger.

Tesco responded quickly and their responses were recorded within the body of these news stories.


'We abhor the use of prison labour and would never allow it in our supply chain,' The Daily Mail.


‘Tesco has now suspended links with the supplier, saying it "abhors" the use of prison labour.’ The Daily Mirror.


“We do not allow the use of prison labour in our supply chain.” The Sun


At this stage, we might be forgiven for assuming that Tesco had just made a mistake..... well that's OK then.....until we dig a little deeper and look the Forbes version of the story. They report: 


The company (Tesco) added that as recently as last month the Shanghai Qingpu prison was audited and no evidence was found that the prison used forced labour. “We abhor the use of prison labour and would never allow it in our supply chain".



Maybe the spokesman was miss-quoted as only Forbes carry this version, so what is Tesco’s policy on ethical business, well that seems difficult to find. The Tesco “supplier manual” website has limited information and contains a link to the “Ethical Trading Initiative. Dig a little deeper and there are strict definitions between “prison labour” and “Forced Prison Labour”. The only Tesco document I could find on the web regarding ethics was from 2014 titled “Tesco Requirements for suppliers” and so things may have changed since then,


It states: Critical non-compliances include: “involuntary prison labour” not prison labour, this would be in line with the “Ethical Trading Initiative.”

I have no doubt that Tesco, an affiliate of Tesco or a 3rd Party auditor will have evaluated the factory concerned, but in reality, an audit will only go so far. An audit is just a snapshot of how a factory operates on the day or days of the audit and might only be conducted once a year or once every two years. These audits are generally advised in advance giving plenty of time to hide any offending evidence. Many of us have worked for companies that have last-minute panics when the auditor is due, checking records and amending where necessary. If you audit abroad and cannot read the seemingly hieroglyphic text then any page from an A4 manual can be translated as the document you are looking for. If you sub-contact the audit to a local there is a high possibility that he or she will have a greater affinity with the factory than the western organisation employing them. If someone is under a forced situation what are the chances of them reviling it in a one to one interview. This is not a “problem with China” the issue is worldwide. The chances of (for example) identifying child labour assuming kids are not sitting on the production line on the day of your visit are remote. If the third-party audit is undertaken against the Ethical Trading Initiative and additional regulations are not imposed voluntary prison labour paid at a certain level is permitted and in some cases may be the only way the prisoner may pay for necessities.

The truth is many companies do not care as much about ethics of any type above profit. In the early eighties, many companies were chasing BS5750 which later became ISO9000, it was aimed at companies that wanted to improve quality but very often the main motivation for approval was sales and marketing. Then we moved onto the environment standard IS014000, then ethics and corporate responsibility, Now we are back to the environment single-use plastics, carbon footprints and saving the planet. Each initiative should be applauded but how many companies take it up through fear of a backlash from customers rather than a belief in their objective.


This “Exclusive”, “Shocking”, “Outrageous” story happened to be about an unnamed factory in China, it could have been anywhere in the world, but do we really care, looking at the comments in the UK newspapers the answer is a resounding “No”

The top comment in the UK’s daily mail is:


“Does no one else think it's odd that this is in perfectly written English?”


Maybe we need a recap using as fewer syllables as possible: – A foreigner, in a foreigners section of a showcase prison, in a country where the export business language is English, writes in English, in an English Christmas card, that is probably destined for an English speaking country. Very suspicious… In fact, at the time of writing nearly 9000 people had agreed with this observation giving a great deal of weight to what Emily Thornberry did not say.


A quick look at comments in this and other papers (including The Mirror) and we find that the readership is primarily in support of prison labour regardless of its origins to the point that maybe Tesco should have spun the story in a positive light, siting that the prisoner in question had a pen, clearly his human rights were respected.


Ultimate there is a balance. If we do not purchase from developing countries they will never develop but please spare the “outrage” Tesco and maybe companies maybe highly ethical but most are just interested in the bottom line and avoiding bad publicity. As for the average consumer may be cheap is good at any cost, until they become part of the assembly process.