In Amelia Pang’s new nonfiction book, “Made in China: A Prisoner, An SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods,” Oregon mother Julie Keith opens a package of discounted Halloween decorations to find an SOS letter written by a Chinese political prisoner.
From this letter, Keith learns that her purchase was assembled and packaged by a man named Sun Yi, imprisoned for campaigning for freedom to join a forbidden meditation movement, Falun Gong.
In the note, Sun details how political prisoners work 15-hour days without a Saturday or Sunday break and make only 10 yuan each month, or about $1.55. Sun says that if the prisoners do not comply with working in these conditions, they will be verbally and physically assaulted.
In telling Sun Yi’s story, Pang’s book steps back and analyzes problems in the global consumer-supply chain, which is a conversation the author believes is neglected.
“There hasn’t been much exploration into why it’s so easy for something that’s manufactured in a labor camp from China to end up selling in American stores,” Pang said in a recent phone interview.
“I really wanted to look at some of the core issues and some of the factors that were driving Chinese factories to outsource work to forced labor.”
A New York Times review this week said the book “feels timely and urgent.”
Pang wrote it with the intention of making consumers aware of what goes on in the supply chain so more people can hold corporations accountable in the sustainability and transparency sector.
“Most companies have a sustainability page these days, or a corporate responsibility page, and a lot of them look like they’re good sustainability pages,” she said.
They may list factories, she said, “but what is the actual relationship with those factories?” How are they sourcing from them? Are they actually giving them enough time to make those products and paying them enough? “It’s up to consumers to push to create that next level of transparency.”
For “Made in China,” Pang spent three years immersed in stories from labor-camp survivors, she writes.
Pang is an award-winning investigative journalist who has been published in the New York Times Sunday Review, Mother Jones and the New Republic. She once went undercover to work at a Chinese buffet while posing as an undocumented immigrant. Pang went on to write about her experience and her findings, which she says gave her insight into more recent projects.
For truthdig.com, she said of a restaurant in Georgia:
“The bussers have no base salary. We only take home tips. Because it is a buffet, my interactions with customers are limited to refilling drinks and removing plates. We usually get $1 or $2 per table, or sometimes no tips at all.”
An immigrant tells her, “I regret coming to the U.S.” Within three days, Pang had had enough and left Georgia.
“Most of the workers there were undocumented Chinese,” Pang said. “They were paid very poorly, and living conditions were pretty awful. The working conditions were kind of grueling, too. It just comes to show, whenever anything is really really cheap, whether it’s unlimited all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, or just the extremely cheap products we’re getting from places like Kmart, there’s a human cost behind it.”