Walmart pulls Milwaukee Tool gloves allegedly made by Chinese prisoners

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China is investigating the Brookfield-based tool company's supply chain following a Wisconsin Watch investigation into its supply chain practices.

Wisconsin Watch

July 17, 2023 • 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 at 13135 West Lisbon Road in Brookfield on March 9, 2023. Walmart is no longer listing Milwaukee Tool-branded gloves on its online marketplace and does not sell them in stores — responding to allegations that the tool company subcontractor relied on forced Chinese prison labor to manufacture certain models of gloves. (Credit: Jim Malewitz / Wisconsin Watch)

Wisconsin Watch

By Zhen Wang, Wisconsin Watch

This story was first published by Wisconsin Watch.

Walmart, the largest retailer in the United States, is no longer selling Milwaukee Tool-branded gloves on its online marketplace — responding to allegations that a subcontractor for the Brookfield, Wisconsin-based tool company relied on forced Chinese prison labor to manufacture certain models of gloves.

“We looked into the allegations regarding the gloves in question, and we made a decision to de-list those from the marketplace,” Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart’s chief sustainability officer, told shareholders during a virtual meeting on May 31, according to a transcript reviewed by Wisconsin Watch.

In a follow up letter to a shareholder, a Walmart official confirmed that the company removed the gloves from its third-party platform, blocked future sales and does not sell the branded gloves in its stores or on its website.

“Walmart does not tolerate involuntary prison labor in its supply chain, even when allowed by local law,” Blair Cromwell, a Walmart spokesperson, told Wisconsin Watch in an email. “Our Standards for Suppliers prohibit it. We find such allegations very concerning and take action to address them.”

The confirmation to shareholders came 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 under grueling conditions at Chishan Prison in China’s central Hunan Province — and to urge giant retailers such as Walmart, Amazon, and The Home Depot to stop selling the gloves or helping third parties do so.

Shi alleges her husband, imprisoned human rights activist Cheng Yuan, has been forced to use a sewing machine to produce goods at the prison for up to 12 hours a day. Shi said she could not verify he was making Milwaukee Tool products but said she heard from former prisoners of Milwaukee Tool’s production at the prison.

Shi Minglei poses for a portrait.

Shi Minglei is the wife of an imprisoned Chinese political dissident who fled to the US in 2021 and now lives in the Twin Cities. She is working to bring attention to what she believes are human rights abuses happening in China, as well as the fact that an American company, Milwaukee Tool, is allegedly using forced labor to make work gloves. She is photographed in Minneapolis on February 19, 2023. (Credit: Ariana Lindquist for Wisconsin Watch)

Walmart confirmed its removal of the gloves weeks after a Wisconsin Watch investigation found additional evidence that Chishan prisoners were paid pennies to make work gloves bearing the iconic brand of Milwaukee Tool, a company with a nearly 100-year history in Wisconsin.

A supplier for Milwaukee Tool subcontracted work to the prison, two former prisoners told Wisconsin Watch. A self-identified salesperson of the supplier, Shanghai Select Safety Products, said it manufactured the majority of Milwaukee Tool’s work gloves. And regulatory filings show Shanghai Select was contracted to manufacture “Performance Gloves” for a subsidiary of Milwaukee Tool’s parent company.

Lee Ming-che, a renowned human rights activist who spent nearly five years in Chishan Prison, verified four types of Milwaukee Tool gloves he made while earning the equivalent of about 48 cents a day during 90-plus hour work weeks: Free-Flex, Demolition, Performance and Winter Performance.

Milwaukee Tool has not responded to Wisconsin Watch’s questions about how it investigates allegations of human rights abuses within its supply chain, but it says it has “found no evidence to support the claims being made.”

“Milwaukee Tool regularly conducts a complete and thorough review of our global operations and supply chain,” spokeswoman Kaitlyn Kasper said in an email July 13, adding that the company has “strict policies and procedures in place to ensure that no authorized Milwaukee Tool products are manufactured by using forced labor.”

Wisconsin Watch reporting spurs congressional scrutiny

The Wisconsin Watch investigation has prompted a bipartisan congressional investigation into Milwaukee Tool’s supply chain practices.

In a July 10 letter to Milwaukee Tool Group President Steve Richman, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, commission co-chair, wrote that the use of forced Chinese labor violates international human rights standards, China’s international obligations and U.S. law.

“We raise these concerns after reading an investigative report by Wisconsin Watch which detailed how political prisoners in Chishan Prison were forced to work against their will, with little pay, to produce gloves for your company,” said the letter, which outlined questions for Milwaukee Tool to answer.

“We understand that Milwaukee Tool may have strongly worded policies against the use of forced labor, as do most every company with global supply chains, but the evidence in this case is very compelling,” the lawmakers wrote.

Speaking July 11 at a commission hearing called “Corporate Complicity: Subsidizing the PRC’s Human Rights Violations,” Smith called the findings from the Wisconsin Watch report “very, very damaging.”

Chris Smith sits in a high-backed chair with leather cushions and speaks into a microphone, with a name plate reading "Mr. Smith," a coffee mug and papers on a desk, with more chairs in the background.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, is the chair of the bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which is scrutinizing Milwaukee Tool’s supply chain practices after an investigation found evidence that Chinese prisoners were paid pennies to make work gloves bearing the iconic brand of Milwaukee Tool. He is shown here at a July 11, 2023 hearing of the commission. (Credit: Congressional-Executive Commission on China / YouTube)

A senior Department of Homeland Security official said his agency is examining the link between forced prison labor in China and products shipped to the U.S., but he did not specifically mention Milwaukee Tool.

“We have our Homeland Security Investigation agency, including through their presence at our embassy in Beijing, investigate and look into those kinds of issues,” said Under Secretary Robert Silvers, calling a lack of transparency into the Chinese system — and particularly its prisons — a challenge that regulators and “companies who want to do the right thing” must confront.

Campaign prompts Walmart action

Shi’s campaign targeting Milwaukee Tool and its vendors caught the attention of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, an international organization tracking allegations of human rights abuses in the private sector. It urged the companies to respond.

Also taking notice: Seventh Generation Interfaith, a Milwaukee-based investment coalition that manages $18 billion in assets and focuses on socially responsible investing, according to Christopher Cox, the group’s executive director.

Missouri-based Mercy Investment Services, one group member, engages with Walmart and other companies about preventing human rights abuses in their supply chains.

Caroline Boden, Mercy’s director of shareholder advocacy, raised the question during the May 31 shareholder’s meeting that prompted McLaughlin of Walmart to confirm that the company had pulled Milwaukee Tool gloves from its marketplace.

Boden welcomed that public confirmation.

“It’s a great way just to raise salient immaterial issues both to the company and to other shareholders,” she told Wisconsin Watch.

Mixed responses from Amazon, The Home Depot

In May, Shi emailed a link to Wisconsin Watch’s investigation to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy and urged his company to halt sales of the Milwaukee Tool-branded gloves on its marketplace.

An Amazon Executive Customer Relations Team representative confirmed to Shi that Jassy received the letter and that the “corresponding department” would review it as Amazon “takes a serious look at these problems,” according to correspondence Shi shared with Wisconsin Watch.

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment to Wisconsin Watch.

Three different sizes of work gloves with knuckle pads and Velcro wrist-fasteners are arranged on hangers and in boxes on a shelf, with prices on stickers beneath each.

Milwaukee Tool “Demolition” gloves are seen at a Home Depot in Madison on Feb. 5, 2023. Two men say they were forced to make “Demolition” gloves and other Milwaukee Tool glove models under grueling conditions while incarcerated at Chishan Prison in China’s central Hunan Province. (Credit: Zhen Wang / Wisconsin Watch)

The Home Depot, Milwaukee Tool’s major distributor, said its internal investigation did not substantiate the allegations against Milwaukee Tool.

“When we learned of the allegations against Milwaukee, we immediately investigated them,” spokesperson Beth Marlowe wrote in an email to Wisconsin Watch. “We have not found any evidence that the Milwaukee gloves sold at The Home Depot are made with forced labor.”

The models of gloves allegedly made with forced prison labor continue to be sold online at Amazon and by The Home Depot.

Ongoing efforts to scrutinize big companies

Boden said her organization will continue to monitor Walmart’s practices and would like Walmart to share details of its internal investigation regarding Milwaukee Tool.

If the company decides to put the gloves back on the market, she wants assurances that they are free from prison labor.

Meanwhile, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China plans to continue scrutinizing Milwaukee Tool. In their July 10 letter, Merkley and Smith told Richman that the commission is “compiling information for future reports and a congressional hearing where we may request your testimony.”

Christen Dobson, senior program manager with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, welcomed such scrutiny.

“We believe it’s important for the company to be transparent,” Dobson said. “It’s a space where there’s a push for greater transparency and accountability related to human rights harms.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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