PORTLAND, Ore. – Julie Keith is convinced the letter is real.
She discovered a handwritten letter describing brutal conditions at a Chinese labor camp inside a box of Halloween decorations sold in an American retail chain store.
Now she's working to draw attention to the plight of the Chinese workers but she's worried that the attention may lead to severe punishment for the person who wrote the letter or other forced laborers. But Keith said she can’t ignore what’s in the letter.
"It was just folded up into a little square, and I thought, 'Oh, what's this?'" she said Thursday.
As Keith would learn, the letter that fell from a box holding a 17-piece Totally Ghoul Graveyard Kit proved far more disturbing than the plastic tombstones the paper was sandwiched in between.
"Someone was desperate enough to risk their life to get this note in the package," she said.
In broken English and Chinese, the letter describes work life at the Masanjia forced labor camp in Shenyang, China as 15-hour workdays without weekends off.
Workers are paid the equivalent of $1.60 a month. And they're under constant threat of torture as punishment for not working.
"I Googled this labor camps and just some horrific, horrific photos and stories came up. It's a nightmare," Keith said.
The letter also says many of the workers making products like the graveyard set practice Falun Gong, a spiritual movement outlawed by the Chinese government.
"People need to know about this. It can't be kept secret," said Keith.
She said the box of Halloween decorations made in China for Kmart Corporation was wrapped in cellophane before she opened it, making it impossible, she said, for someone to slip the letter inside in America.
Kmart's parent company, Sears Holdings, responded to KATU’s questions in a written statement reading in part: "Although we found no evidence that production was subcontracted to a labor camp during a recent audit of the factory that produced the Halloween decoration, our investigation continues."
"If Kmart Corporation researches this and quits buying products from this labor camp, that will help – just any little thing will make a start," Keith said.
Homeland Security is investigating the authenticity of the letter. It's against federal law to import products manufactured through forced labor. It isn't discussing the case, but the criminal investigation focuses on the importer, not the seller in Kmart.
It's more likely that Kmart would take some action in China because for the Obama administration this is an international diplomacy issue and the big question is how cooperative the Chinese government would be.