NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Giant U.S. retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc said on Wednesday it is looking into the origins of a note describing forced labor conditions in China that a customer claimed to find in a purse bought at a store in Arizona.
The note detailed long hours, beatings and malnourishment of workers at a prison in the Chinese region of Guangxi, according to the customer's family who contacted local media.
Similar notes found by customers in imported merchandise have raised questions about forced labor used in supply chains making brands sold at major retail stores.
Globally, nearly 21 million people are estimated to be victims of forced labor, according to the International Labour Organization.
Wal-Mart on Wednesday said it was investigating.
"We're making contact with the customer and appreciate her bringing this to our attention. With the information we have, we are looking into what happened so we can take the appropriate actions," Ragan Dickens, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said in an e-mail to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The customer told local media late last month that the note was hand-written in Chinese but she had it translated into English three times.
According to KVOA.com News in Tucson, Arizona, the note read, in part: "Inmates in the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi, China are working 14 hours daily with no break/rest at noon, continue working overtime until 12 midnight, and whoever doesn't finish his work will be beaten.
Prisoners are treated worse than "horse cow goat pig dog," it read.
Wal-Mart's website details the company's efforts to keep its supply chains free of forced labor and human trafficking.
"We are working to improve transparency, empower workers and drive compliance," it says.
In a similar case, in 2014 a woman found a message in a Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bag from a man saying he was forced to work long hours at a Chinese prison factory. The worker was tracked down, and the note deemed legitimate. He was later released.
In 2012 a Kmart shopper reported finding a letter at his local U.S. store from a worker also describing harrowing work conditions in China.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)