HONG KONG — When word came that a dangerous new virus was killing people in mainland China, the people of Hong Kong sprang into action. Virtually overnight, the schools were closed, posters appeared around the city reminding residents to wash their hands, and seemingly everyone on the street was wearing a face mask.
While the West debated the efficacy of masks, Hong Kong residents, stung by the deadly SARS outbreak 17 years ago, put their trust in them. In the months since the pandemic began on its doorstep, only four people in Hong Kong, a city of 7.5 million, have died from Covid-19.
But behind the ubiquitous masks is a truth that not everyone here knows. Millions of Hong Kong’s surgical masks are produced by prisoners, who said they often worked under duress and late at night for mere pennies.
The medium-security Lo Wu prison, located near the mainland border, has been churning out masks 24 hours a day since February, when the Hong Kong government ramped up production to supply the city’s army of medical, public health and sanitation workers.
Working around the clock, inmates, along with retired and off-duty correction officers volunteering their time, now produce 2.5 million masks per month, up from 1.1 million before the outbreak.
One inmate, Yannis, was assigned to weld elastic ear loops onto mask fronts, six days a week from midnight until sunrise. She spent long hours hunched over an ultrasound welder; the work required so much concentration that she suspected it was bad for the body.
Yannis, who was released last month after completing a two-year sentence for theft, asked to be identified by her first name alone, for fear of reprisals.
The city’s Correctional Services Department said inmates who worked overnight or additional shifts did so “voluntarily” and received higher wages. But Yannis described a culture of intimidation, in which some prisoners feared that they risked not being released on time if they refused to sign up for extra work.
Prison labor in Hong Kong is officially billed as an opportunity for inmates to do “useful work” that helps to rehabilitate them and “reduce their idleness and tension.” More than 4,000 inmates produce traffic signs, police uniforms, hospital linens and office supplies for the government every year.
Such goods were valued at $57 million in 2018, according to the authorities, who said the program had the “incidental benefit of saving public money.”
There are no clocks inside the prison and the inmates are deprived of a traditional sense of time. Long hours of intense focus and repetition were exhausting for the laborers, said Yannis, especially older inmates who suffered from poor eyesight and high blood pressure.
Injuries, she said, were commonplace. She burned her fingers while operating the welding machine, and developed tinnitus — a high-pitched ringing in the ears, accompanied by headaches — because her workstation was located next to noisy automated machines.
Another inmate cut her finger while cleaning the insides of a mask machine in March, an accident confirmed by prison officials.
Yannis said overnight workers, like herself, were paid a rate slightly higher than inmates who worked during the day. She said she earned $4.30 a day, or $0.61 per hour — about an eighth of Hong Kong’s statutory minimum wage. Overnight workers received a one-hour break and refreshments.
Yannis said her meager wages went right back to the prison. Inmates spent their income at the prison commissary on necessities, such as hair conditioner, menstrual pads, tissue paper and stationery.
Shiu Ka-chun, a legislator who represents the city’s social welfare sector, said he learned from a different inmate that prisoners were threatened with punishment, including more physically demanding roles, if they refused to take on additional hours in the mask factory.
Mr. Shiu, who was imprisoned last year for eight months for his role in the 2014 pro-democracy protests, said he worked in a prison garment factory, earning up to $0.57 per hour.
“What workers get is very, very little, it’s humiliating,” he said. “This is exploitation by nature, especially when the distribution of income and labor is so extreme.”