Chinese prisoner’s ID card apparently found in lining of Regatta coat

Clothing brand has significant Irish presence, with 24 stores across the island

An ID card that appears to belong to a Chinese prisoner was found inside the lining of a coat from the brand Regatta, raising concerns that the clothing was manufactured using prison labour.

The waterproof women’s coat was bought online by a woman in Derbyshire in the UK in the Black Friday sale. When it arrived on November 22nd, she could feel a hard rectangular item in the right sleeve, which restricted the movement of her elbow.

After cutting into the coat to remove the item, she discovered what looked like a prison identification card, with a mugshot of a man apparently in a prisoner’s uniform in front of a height chart, and the name of the prison in China.

In a statement Regatta said it “refutes the implication that we use forced prison labour”.

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Regatta “has payroll documentation to show the person pictured on the ID was an employee who received a wage. The individual had an employment contract with the factory and was not working under forced or prison conditions,” it stated.

“Our investigation showed no indicators that prison labour were present in the factory at any time,” the company said.

Regatta has a significant presence in Ireland, where it is a popular outdoor brand. It has 24 stores across the island, its website states. It also collaborates with other clothing brands, including Orla Kiely. While a spokeswoman for Orla Kiely declined to comment, it is understood the company takes its supply chain transparency seriously. There is no suggestion that any Orla Kiely clothing was involved.

“You don’t expect it from [Regatta]. It’s a UK brand that’s up there with Next, with M&S, that you put your children in their clothes ... and this happens, and it just makes you feel really uneasy and uncomfortable,” said the woman, who does not wish to be named.

The card was found inside a plastic holder embossed with the words: “Produced by the Ministry of Justice prisons bureau.”

The woman sent Regatta’s customer service agent a photograph of the ID card via the website chat service. The agent replied: “Wow, that is a first.”

When she asked whether it was a prison ID the agent said: “No, it is a Chinese work ID, from our factory site over in China. But you are right, it look [sic] like a prison id.” The agent then told the woman to dispose of the ID.

Despite feeling uneasy, the woman disposed of the card and “thought nothing more of it”. But the company emailed her later that evening asking her to return the ID and coat to the company. The next day she spoke to several Regatta representatives on the phone.

The company encouraged her to return the ID card, saying it would replace her original coat – which now has a hole in the sleeve – and send her a new additional coat “as a gesture of goodwill”, she said. The woman declined the offer but retrieved the card from the bin.

Regatta denies that a new coat was offered in exchange for the ID card.

“I don’t feel very comfortable with it ... I know it is legal in China, and we have different standards and things like that in the UK, but you still don’t expect prisoners to be making clothes,” the woman told the Guardian.

Regatta’s 2023 modern slavery statement states that “forced or imprisoned labour is prohibited” in its supply chain and it is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, a membership organisation that requires adherence with certain guidelines, including a ban on “forced, bonded or involuntary prison labour”. The statement also says 70 factories were audited in 2022-2023, although it is unclear how many were in China.

A representative for Regatta said: “Regatta Ltd took the incident reported to us by a customer very seriously and an immediate investigation commenced. As a business and members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, we have strict policies in place to ensure ethical working standards for all, and zero tolerance for forced or prison labour. Following a thorough investigation, we can state that this garment was made in a fully compliant factory and that numerous inspections of the factory, including a certified third-party visit to the site, found no breaches of any of our policies.

“We are continuing to investigate how the item came to be sewn into the garment.”

The coat was made in China, although information on the Regatta website and in a QR code sewn into the coat also states Myanmar as a manufacturing location. It was produced in July 2023, according to the label.

The use of prison labour is ubiquitous in China. China’s prison law states: “Prisons implement the principles of combining punishment and rehabilitation, and combining education and labour for criminals, so as to transform criminals into law-abiding citizens.”

The prison identified on the ID card found in the Regatta coat says on its website that it specialises in clothing production and the processing of electronics components. Prisoners in that province are typically paid 1-1.5 yuan (13-20 cents) an hour, according to local guidelines.

It is not clear how the ID card ended up in the coat or whether it was put there deliberately. Handwritten notes from Chinese prisoners occasionally turn up in consumer products, such as in 2019, when a note written in English was found by a six-year-old girl in a Christmas card sold by Tesco. The note said: “We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu prison China. Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organisation.”

Last month the French broadcaster Arte aired a documentary about a handwritten Chinese letter that was found inside a pregnancy test bought in Paris. The anonymous note said: “Dear friends, do you know that behind your peaceful life, there are Chinese prisoners,” the documentary stated.

The finding in the Regatta coat is unusual in that it identifies a specific individual, which risks repercussions for that person, and did not come with a note.

Peter Humphrey, a former journalist who spent nearly two years in Shanghai Qingpu prison, said: “If the prisoner has placed this inside a coat that he was working on, the purpose is to let people overseas know that this article was made by prison labour.” Humphrey now campaigns against prison labour products from China, having witnessed prison labour during his time in Qingpu prison.

Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for China, said: “Companies have a responsibility to do much more to guarantee their supply chains are free of human rights abuses – wherever they operate in the world. The mere existence of allegations of forced or compulsory labour must at a minimum alert companies to the risk of having links to these abuses.” – Guardian