Forty-three-year-old Tang Mingfang was arrested in 2019 for giving documents to a human rights group that showed a Foxconn factory in China was using child labor for manufacturing Echo and Kindle devices for Amazon.com.
After serving two years of prison time in which he claims Chinese police tortured him, Tang is publicly asking Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos to apologize for their role in his ordeal and help him clear his legal record.
Tang, a former employee of the Hengyang Futaihong Precision Industry Company, furnished a group called China Labor Watch (CLW) with documents in 2019 that showed schoolchildren were working illegally long hours at the Foxconn plant in Hengyang.
Over 1,000 students, as young as 16, were drafted from schools, hired by the factory as “interns,” and pressured to work overnight and weekend shifts for meager salaries. Chinese labor laws allow 16-year-olds to work, but not during either night or overtime shifts.
Student laborers said their work had nothing to do with their studies in school, the ostensible reason they were sent to the factories as “interns.” Nevertheless, their teachers told those who complained, also paid by the factory, that their grades and scholarship applications might suffer if they refused to work.
CLW forwarded the complaint to Amazon, which investigated and confirmed the allegations were true. Amazon told Foxconn to improve its worker’s pay and living conditions and dismiss the supervisors involved in the child labor complaint.
“We have doubled the oversight and monitoring of the internship program with each relevant partner school to ensure that, under no circumstances, will interns [be] allowed to work overtime or nights,” Foxconn said in August 2019, blaming “lax oversight on the part of the local management team” for allowing unacceptable demands to be made of some students.
Tang was not rewarded for blowing the whistle on these abuses. Instead, he was arrested on charges of divulging trade secrets and sentenced to two years in prison in July 2020.
CLW denounced the verdict as “ridiculous,” noting Foxconn essentially charged Tang with stealing the company’s money by depriving it of cheap, illegal student labor. CLW also pointed out that Foxconn’s revenge against Tang violated the whistleblower protection clauses of Amazon’s Supply Chain Standards, not to mention American forced labor laws.
Two weeks ago, Tang wrote a letter to Amazon Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos, which was made public over the weekend. In the letter, Tang said he was beaten by his jailers and tortured with stressful conditions until he signed a confession to the charge of infringing upon trade secrets. He also said his father died while he was in prison.
“The reason why I reported these abuses was to fulfill my duty to defend social justice and out of empathy for the battered student workers; my intentions were never to seek profit or harm the company,” Tang told Bezos.
Tang explained he gave his whistleblower evidence to CLW because he had no means of contacting Amazon directly, and local media was “reluctant to report” his findings due to Foxconn’s influence in Hengyang.
“After the issue came to light, I was happy to see that Amazon immediately instructed the audit department to investigate and urge Hengyang Foxconn to rectify the problem. I just never thought I would be maliciously targeted by Hengyang Foxconn and pay the price of two years in jail,” he wrote.
Tang gave Bezos a detailed description of the stress positions he was forced to endure until he broke and confessed to Foxconn’s charges:
I could not stand up because my hands were chained onto the little desk that connected the two armrests. I could not do anything but suffer through such grave pain. During the first few days of the interrogation, the officers purposefully turned the air conditioner to the maximum level in the interrogation room, and I felt extremely cold. Eventually, they got angry and handcuffed both hands to the bottom of the iron frame. I was unable to stand or sit down, and I spent the entire night in a semi-crouching position. By the next morning, I could no longer not endure it. My entire body shivered and shook when I reluctantly signed the documents provided by the police, next to an officer whom I feared would beat me again if I did not cooperate.
Tang said his “physical and mental health suffered tremendous damage” during his two years in prison, including his anguish when he was not allowed to visit his father in the hospital or attend his funeral. Because he was not present at the funeral, he said everyone in his hometown learned he was in prison, and rumors about him “overwhelmed my grieving elderly mother and nearly broke her spirit.” His sister, wife, and son also suffered in his absence.
“Hengyang Foxconn is the source of all of this suffering. My father always taught me that I should be a good person, and because I followed my heart and believed that justice should be served, I reported the serious violations at Hengyang Foxconn. Yet my imprisonment has caused such great harm to me and my family!” he wrote to Bezos.
Tang told Bezos he was a “loyal admirer” of the billionaire Amazon founder, quoting, in turn, Bezos’ public admiration for “people who fight hard for their beliefs and try hard.” He said he saw himself following Bezos’ example by blowing the whistle on Foxconn.
“As your faithful admirer, as a former employee of your company’s client, as a victim, a son, a husband, and a father, I hope you can understand and pay attention to what happened to me. I would also like to ask you here: Can you ask Hengyang Foxconn to face up to its own problems and to compensate and apologize to me?” Tang asked Bezos.
“As the only customer of Foxconn in Hengyang, I hope that you will ask Foxconn in Hengyang to communicate with the local court and assist me in my complaint about the case so that the court can finally revoke my guilty verdict!” he concluded.
On Sunday, Tang discussed his letter to Bezos with the Observer, a weekly published by the UK Guardian that began investigating the Hengyang Foxconn factory alongside CLW in 2018.
“I think Amazon should give me an explanation; tell me if I really deserve to be sent to jail? If not, Amazon should give me an apology, along with its partner, Foxconn, to assist me in appealing for redress, and provide compensation,” Tang told the newspaper.
The Observer believed Foxconn identified Tang as the whistleblower by reviewing security camera footage from the factory. Tang said that before he was arrested, “he saw a foreigner whom he believed to be one of the Amazon staff going through his desk drawer and checking the pockets of his uniform on his chair.”
The Observer followed up with Amazon on Tang’s letter. An Amazon spokesperson refused to answer specific questions about the case but insisted the company does not “tolerate violations of our supply chain standards.”
“We regularly assess suppliers, using independent auditors as appropriate, to monitor continued compliance and improvement,” the spokesperson said. “If we find violations, we take appropriate steps, including requesting immediate corrective action.”
CLW director Li Qiang told the Observer he also wrote to Bezos urging him to help Tang but received no response from either Bezos or Amazon.
“CLW believes that Amazon has the responsibility to call for China to free this innocent volunteer, who provided the evidence of labor violations in an Amazon supplier factory and thank him for helping improving workers’ conditions. All he did was report violations of workers’ rights in an Amazon supplier factory. He did not commit any illegal acts,” Li argued.
“It is unacceptable and unfair that Tang Mingfang is serving jail time for trying to help Amazon improve the labor conditions in its supplier factory,” he declared.