Qantas has launched an investigation into allegations that the airline purchased in-flight headphones made by inmates at a Chinese prison who were regularly beaten and held in solitary confinement if they failed to meet production targets.
The airline said it had immediately suspended its dealings with Vietnam-based Airphonics, one of its main suppliers which is accused of contracting out work to a third Chinese company that uses prison labour in China to fill large orders.
A Qantas spokesman said the company was "very concerned" by the allegations and had suspended its use of the supplier until an investigation was carried out.
The Australian Financial Review spoke to two former inmates of Dongguan Prison, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, who alleged that they had made headphones for numerous international airlines.
One of those inmates, New Zealander Danny Cancian, said he had made disposable earphones for Qantas, British Airways and Emirates. He had also made small inductors used in electrical appliances for local companies which supplied the companies Electrolux, a major player in the Australian market, and Emerson.
Mr Cancian, who was serving a four-year jail sentence for manslaughter following a restaurant brawl, told The Australian Financial Review that prisoners who failed to meet production targets were "taken outside and Tasered".
"It's a very cruel environment. You wake up every morning wondering if you are going to survive the day," he told the newspaper.
Prisoners are paid eight yuan ($1.40) a month for their labour, and Mr Cancian claimed they worked more than 70 hours a week.
All companies contacted by the Australian Financial Review denied any knowledge of the use of prison labour in their supply chain.
In a statement, a Qantas spokesman said the airline had been assured by its main supplier that it met the airline's strict standards.
"The allegation that one of our suppliers of headsets, which is based in Vietnam, used a third-party supplier in China to help fill an order go against the verbal and written assurances we've had from our supplier that their supply chain process met our standards, including the ethical treatment of workers," the spokesman said.
"Qantas places very strict conditions on suppliers and we conduct regular audits of factories ourselves to ensure those conditions - which include no forced labour - are met.
"To be clear, Qantas has no relationship with the Chinese-based company at the centre of the AFR's claims."
- Sydney Morning Herald