Tesco has halted production at a Chinese factory making its charity Christmas cards after a little girl found a message from foreign prisoners claiming they were victims of forced labour.

The British grocery giant, which also operates across Asia including China, was forced to shut down production after Florence Widdicombe, six, from Tooting, south London, opened a card featuring a kitten wearing a Santa hat to find it had already been written in.

Tesco donates £300,000 a year to the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK from the sales of its charity Christmas card boxes, but questions have now been raised about how those cards are being made.

Tesco's charity Christmas cards raise £300,000 each year for three major British health charities. Pic: Tesco
Image: Tesco’s charity Christmas cards raise £300,000 each year for three major British health charities. Pic: Tesco

The message, in capital letters, inside Florence’s card said: “We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu prison China.

“Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organisation.

“Use the link to contact Mr Peter Humphrey.”

Florence’s father, Ben Widdicombe, contacted Mr Humphrey after a Google search revealed he was a former British journalist and corporate fraud investigator who had spent two years in the same jail after he was hired by pharmaceutical giant GSK when it was embroiled in bribery allegations in China.

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Mr Humphrey said he received a message on Monday via LinkedIn from Mr Widdicombe, a civil servant specialising in criminal justice, which “suddenly plunged” him back to the “painful two-year period” he and his American wife were imprisoned over “bogus charges”.

Writing in the Sunday Times, Mr Humphrey said he does not know who the prisoners are that wrote the message but he has “no doubt” they knew him during his time in Qingpu, which is about 62 miles (100km) from the Zheijiang Yunguang Printing factory where the cards are made.

Peter Humphrey was imprisoned after he was accused of breaching privacy laws while investigating a sex tape of the China boss of GSK in 2014
Image: Peter Humphrey was imprisoned after he was accused of breaching privacy laws while investigating a sex tape of the China boss of GSK in 2014

He said ex-prisoners have confirmed to him inmates in the foreign prisoner unit “are being forced into mundane manual assembly or packaging tasks” – including packing Christmas cards and gift tags for Tesco for at least the past two years.

Mr Humphrey added that prisoners also make packaging and tags for western clothing and saw the names of other high street brands on these tags when he was in prison.

A Tesco spokesman told Sky News: “We would never allow prison labour in our supply chain.

“We were shocked by these allegations and immediately halted production at the factory where these cards are produced and launched an investigation.

“We have a comprehensive auditing system in place and this supplier was independently audited as recently as last month and no evidence was found to suggest they had broken our rule banning the use of prison labour.

“If evidence is found we will permanently de-list the supplier.”

The foreign prisoners unit at Shanghai Qingpu Prison celebrating Christmas in 2005
Image: The foreign prisoners unit at Shanghai Qingpu Prison celebrating Christmas in 2005

The supermarket has 35 full-time sourcing managers who work across Asia, and are local to their countries, who visit factories to ensure good working conditions.

Mr Humphrey said he does not believe British companies would “knowingly commission prison labour, but they may never be able to tell if their Chinese suppliers are sub-contracting production to the prison system”.

He said independent auditors are not allowed into Chinese prisons so there is “little chance of unravelling the secretive business arrangements that have turned the jail system into a lucrative profit centre for the Chinese state”.

“All this suggests that companies trading in the kind of products that emerge from Chinese prisons need to be unusually vigilant to protect themselves from allegations that they are profiting from abuse,” Mr Humphrey wrote.

“A chance discovery by a six-year-old Londoner last weekend underlines the urgency of the challenge.”

The note allegedly came from prisoners in Qingpu's foreign prisoners' unit - pictured here in 2004 celebrating Christmas
Image: The note allegedly came from prisoners in Qingpu’s foreign prisoners’ unit – pictured here in 2004 celebrating Christmas

In 2017, Jessica Rigby, from Braintree, Essex, found a message in a Christmas card purchased from Sainsbury’s, which read in Chinese: “Wishing you luck and happiness.

“Third product Shop, Guangzhou Prison, Number 6 District.”

And in 2014, a woman in Belfast said she found a note written in Chinese characters wrapped inside a prison identity card inside a pair of trousers she bought from Primark in 2011 but had never worn.

The note, which said SOS at the top, claimed inmates at Xiangnan jail in Hubei, China, were forced to work 15 hours days producing clothes.

Primark said it regularly inspected its factories and “no prison or other forced labour of any kind was found during these inspections”.