Walmart (!!!) Takes Action After Milwaukee Tool Accused of Making Products Using Forced Labor in China

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Jul 19 2023 |
Photo “Walmart Store” by JeepersMedia via Creative Commons

We aren’t Walmart’s biggest fans, to put it mildly. But credit where credit is due.

I cannot believe I am about to type this, but: Walmart just did the right thing.

Wisconsin Watch reported Tuesday that when the retail giant learned that it was selling Milwaukee Tool-branded gloves that allegedly “relied on forced Chinese prison labor to manufacture,” Walmart investigated and eventually decided to stop selling the gloves. That decision is all the more commendable given that The Home Depot and Amazon both continue to sell the gloves, Wisconsin Watch reported.

On a May 31 shareholder call, Walmart chief sustainability officer Kathleen McLaughlin said that the retailer “looked into the allegations regarding the gloves in question, and we made a decision to de-list those from the marketplace as noted.” And a Walmart spokesperson told Wisconsin Watch that “Walmart does not tolerate involuntary prison labor in its supply chain, even when allowed by local law. Our Standards for Suppliers prohibit it. We find such allegations very concerning and take action to address them.”

Look, we’ve been pretty critical of Walmart over the years — and for good reason. There’s no doubt that the retailer played a leading role in the offshoring of domestic manufacturing, and its various campaigns to support Made in America have always struck us as nothing more than a flashy PR stunt.

But we’ve got to give them credit in this case. While other retailers decided to look the other way when it came to credible allegations of forced labor, Walmart took the time to look into it. And when they found evidence that those allegations had merit, they took action.

It’s a low bar, sure. But it’s a bar that, unfortunately, not everyone else is meeting.

The Gloves in Question

Wisconsin Watch reporter Zhen Wang published a story in May 2023 outlining the allegations surrounding the Milwaukee Tool-branded gloves, writing that an investigation found evidence “that Chishan prisoners were paid pennies to make work gloves bearing the iconic brand of Milwaukee Tool.”

Wisconsin Watch reported that two former prisoners said in separate interviews that a Milwaukee Tool supplier subcontracted the work to the prison. Wang spoke to former prisoner Lee Ming-che, a human rights advocate who was imprisoned for five years after being convicted of “subverting state power.” Lee Ming-che, who now lives in Taiwan, told Wisconsin Watch “that officials forced him and hundreds of other Chishan prisoners to work roughly 13 hours a day, seven days a week with just a few days off around the Chinese New Year. His pay? The equivalent of about 48 cents a day.”

Here’s more from the report:

Lee Ming-che wasn’t the only person making allegations against Milwaukee Tool. Chinese exile Shi Minglei, now a Minnesota resident, launched a petition urging Milwaukee Tool to stop sourcing gloves from the prison. Minglei is the wife of Chinese activist Cheng Yuan, and Minglei claims he is “being exploited as a slave laborer to produce Milwuakee Tool gloves.”

Milwaukee Tool has denied the allegations of forced labor. A spokesperson told Wisconsin Watch that the company has “found no evidence to support the claims being made.”

Not everyone is buying it. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, wrote to Milwaukee Tool President Steve Richman on July 10 seeking answers.

“The issue of forced labor in China, and the unfair trade advantage it offers companies like yours, is one that has plagued the U.S. economy for decades, the lawmakers wrote. “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.”

Enough is Enough

While every accusation of forced labor is reprehensible, it’s particularly frustrating to see Milwaukee Tool face these allegations, as it is one of the better known brands that manufacture some products in the United States. But Milwaukee Tool is hardly alone in its connection to forced labor.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2020 found that at least 82 well-known brands were tied to forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region, where a genocide of the Uyghur people is taking place. Forced labor is so prevalent in Xinjiang that the United States now bans all imports from Xinjiang unless importers can definitely prove their products aren’t made with forced labor.

But it’s not just happening in Xinjiang. The Labor Department noted that “external reports indicate that Uyghurs also have been transported to work in other provinces in China, increasing the number of goods potentially made with forced labor and broadening the risk of forced labor in supply chains.”

And that’s just what’s allegedly happening to the Uyghurs. As the Milwaukee Tool case shows, the Chinese Communist Party also stands accused of using forced labor throughout its prison system, with detainees forced to make products for Western companies.

Importing anything made with forced labor is technically illegal — but the complexity of global supply chains means it is incredibly difficult to enforce that law. Even the clear cut ban of products from Xinjiang has been a challenge. While some progress has indeed been made, companies have gotten creative at getting around it.

That means that companies need to step it up. Now, here at the Alliance for American Manufacturing, we think everyone should reshore all of their manufacturing to the United States. But absent that, companies need to do everything in their power to ensure nothing that they sell is made with forced labor. Given the growing prevalence of forced labor throughout China, moving production out of China seems like a good place to start.

And at the very least, when credible allegations of forced labor arise, companies need to take them seriously, as Walmart did in this case.