A lawsuit argues Milwaukee Tool relied on forced labor in China to make gloves

A former prisoner at Chishan Prison in China’s Hunan Province says he was subjected to five months of forced labor for to manufacture products for the benefit of Milwaukee Tool — the company says the claim lacks merit in response to a lawsuit filed in federal court.

Wisconsin Watch

July 1, 2024 • Southeast Region

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A sign with the Milwaukee Tool wordmark and lightning bolt logo is surrounded by bushes near the entrance to a parking lot, with a tree, parked cars and a multi-story office building in the background.

The Milwaukee Tool global headquarters are seen on March 9, 2023, at 13135 West Lisbon Road in Brookfield. A lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin on behalf of a former prisoner at Chishan Prison in China's Hunan Province, alleges Milwaukee Tool and its parent company relied on forced labor at the prison to produce several models of work gloves (Credti: Jim Malewitz / Wisconsin Watch)

Wisconsin Watch

By Julius Shieh, Wisconsin Watch

A lawsuit filed June 27 in federal court alleges Milwaukee Tool and its parent company, Techtronic Industries Company Limited, relied on forced labor from a Chinese prison to produce several models of work gloves.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a former prisoner at Chishan Prison in China’s Hunan Province. The prisoner alleges he was subjected to five months of forced labor for the companies’ benefit in 2022.

The filing in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin identified the prisoner under the pseudonym Xu Lun because he still lives in China and “reasonably fears for his safety if his identity is revealed.” It seeks compensation for unpaid wages and other damages under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which allows victims of forced labor, including foreign nationals, to file civil actions against those who knowingly benefit from their coerced work.

The lawsuit alleges Xu and others were forced to manufacture several types of Milwaukee Tool-branded work gloves, including Demolition, Winter Demolition, Performance and Free-Flex, while earning the equivalent of between $1.41 and $42.50 per month to work up to 13 hours a day.

Wisconsin Watch spoke with Xu during a 2023 investigation of Milwaukee Tool’s supply chain practices.

“Everyone knows these things will be exported to America,” Xu said at the time. “We stitched labels onto every single pair (of gloves). Labels do show the address.”

Brookfield-based Milwaukee Tool, a company with a 100-year history in Wisconsin, has repeatedly said it has found no evidence of forced labor within its supply chain. A spokesperson on Thursday said the company “considers the claim without merit.”

The lawsuit comes 19 months after Chinese exile Shi Minglei, who now lives in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, launched a public campaign to pressure Milwaukee Tool to stop sourcing gloves allegedly made by Shanghai Select Safety Products Company under grueling conditions at the prison — and to urge retailers to stop selling the gloves or helping third parties do so.

Walmart has since removed Milwaukee Tool-branded gloves from its third-party platform and has blocked future sales. And in April, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it would detain gloves at U.S. ports of entry if they were made by Shanghai Select or two subsidiaries. The agency cited information that “reasonably indicates the use of convict labor” in violation of federal law.

“Shanghai Select was frequently mentioned by the prison guards as an important customer,” the lawsuit states. “The Milwaukee Tool gloves… were subject to more stringent quality control standards than some of the other products being produced at Chishan Prison, (as) they bore a label setting forth Milwaukee Tool’s Brookfield, Wisconsin address.”

Although the Customs and Border Protection action did not specifically mention Milwaukee Tool, Charity Ryerson, a human rights lawyer and executive director of Chicago-based Corporate Accountability Lab, said the order could benefit Xu’s forced labor claim, which can otherwise be hard to prove.

Milwaukee Tool said it takes allegations of forced labor seriously and has found no evidence of such practices in its supply chain.

“It’s important to note that we’ve terminated our relationship with the accused supplier and ceased sourcing gloves from them,” Milwaukee Tool spokesperson Heather McGee told Wisconsin Watch in an email on June 27. “This decision was made independently from these allegations and reflects our company’s process to innovate and upgrade our glove offerings.”

McGee did not specify the supplier’s name or date of the termination.

The email also said Milwaukee Tool had identified “multiple examples of unauthorized, counterfeit gloves originating in China and bearing the Milwaukee-brand name, which supports the likelihood that the gloves in question could be examples of unauthorized, counterfeit gloves.”

McGee’s email did not explain what it would mean for a supplier to counterfeit Milwaukee Tool gloves while also having a relationship with the company, and she declined to answer follow-up questions.

Techtronic Industries Company Limited, the Hong-Kong-based parent of Milwaukee Tool and a variety of other well-known brands, did not respond to requests for comment.

Times Wang, an attorney representing Xu, said in an interview that Milwaukee Tool has never “credibly denied that the gloves that my client was forced to make were, in fact, genuine.”

The lawsuit alleges that Milwaukee Tool “knew or should have known that their gloves were made with forced labor,” and Xu’s legal team alerted them in January 2023. Milwaukee Tool replied within two weeks to say an internal investigation found no forced labor within the supply chain, the lawsuit says.

Corporate Accountability Lab’s Ryerson said buyers like Milwaukee Tool “have a huge amount of responsibility in generating the conditions that create forced labor” as they use practices that drive down wages and prices.

“In this particular case we’re talking about a branded, even patented, product with a high level of specificity, in addition to the social auditing and required adherence to numerous policies at the site of production,” Ryerson said.

Milwaukee Tool in the past has touted the meticulous, thoughtful process in which it manufactures gloves.

“Gloves, in particular, are a category where a lot of companies would go out and grab some product off the shelf, slap their logo on it, and say we have gloves now,” a Milwaukee Tool product manager announced at a 2016 event that was cited in the lawsuit. “Obviously at Milwaukee that’s not our approach.”

Editor’s note: Jim Malewitz contributed reporting.

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