HONG KONG — One man has been detained during his investigation of labor conditions at a factory that makes shoes for Ivanka Trump’s fashion label. Another two are missing. The trio were working with New York-based China Labor Watch (CLW), compiling information about the factory’s low pay, excessive overtime, and potential misuse of student labor for a report meant to be published next month.
CLW is a not-for-profit organization that has released numerous dispatches about the labor conditions in China since 2000, including a breakdown of how Apple can improve the safety and physical conditions in the facilities of its subcontractors, detailed accounts of wages in the manufacturing sector in various corners of China, and a description of the human cost of producing Disney-branded playthings. The watchdog group has an arm in Shenzhen too, where it provides support and training for factory workers who want to acquire the skills and techniques for collective organization, and recruits activists like those who were looking into the labor practices of Ivanka Trump brand’s contractor. In particular, they have uncovered multiple cases of Chinese factories illegally employing child labor.
While reports distributed by the organization have challenged some of the largest international corporations—including Apple, Samsung, Disney, Mattel, and more—with the advocacy group alleging these companies’ passive acceptance of exploitative labor arrangements, CLW director Li Qiang said that this line of work has not attracted such intense involvement by Chinese state security in the past.
Labor advocacy is a touchy subject in China.
Small-scale protests take place frequently, often stemming from abuses and unfair treatment by employers. These demonstrations are frequently staged in factory towns, off the radars of most foreign news organizations, with scant or nonexistent local coverage. Last year’s downturn in the Chinese economy led to a spike in this form of dissent, with workers self-organizing and taking to the streets to voice their objections in public. Chinese political leadership sees this as disorder—even a path to instability—and violent crackdowns ensue.
Hua Haifeng, who was detained by police after being accused of “illegal eavesdropping,” was looking into labor conditions by working undercover at a factory that belongs to Ganzhou Huajian International Shoe City Co., which is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of women’s shoes.
On Tuesday afternoon, Hua’s wife was contacted by the Public Security Bureau in Jiangxi Province, where one of Huajian’s factories is located, and was informed of her husband’s detention. Under Chinese law, Hua can be held for weeks before he is released—or before he is formally placed under arrest. Hua has over a decade of experience in labor advocacy, he knows the score.
The other two men who were working with CLW are named Li Zhao and Su Heng. Like Hua, both men were working undercover in one of Huajian’s facilities. In April, Li was terminated after only five days of employment because he was caught using the camera function of his smartphone on campus, which runs against Huajian’s company policy. Local police contacted Li by phone, but he fled and is in hiding.
Hua’s detention marks the first time that an individual working with CLW has been detained by Chinese law enforcement. The rapid escalation in this case is due to the name emblazoned on the products churned out by the shoe factory. Peeking into the shoemaker’s operation is no longer an examination of commercial practices; it has become a diplomatic imbroglio.
The Ivanka Trump brand has so far declined to comment on Hua’s confinement, the labor conditions at its subcontractor in China, or the discoveries made by CLW.
Last week, Ivanka’s father, Donald J. Trump (yes, President Trump) earned his 39th trademark with preliminary approval in China, on top of 77 that have already been registered in the country.
China’s abysmal human rights record and substandard labor conditions are familiar tropes, and Ivanka Trump, after watching her father occupy the Oval Office and then taking on an official role as one of his advisers in the White House, has chosen to continue her business with dubious fashion apparel suppliers in the People’s Republic. In April, after Ivanka Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping, with her children coaxed into performing a song in Chinese for Xi at Mar-a-Lago—the first daughter wanted the leader of the Chinese Communist Party to “feel at home”—and she secured key trademarks for her clothing, jewelry, and accessories brand.
If the first daughter is unaware of Chinese labor conditions, there is little excuse. “The reported disappearance of advocates investigating violations of workers’ rights at a Chinese factory that makes Ivanka Trump branded shoes is not unusual,” says Scott Greathead, a New York lawyer who advises global companies doing business in China. “In the past few years there has been a growing government crackdown on lawyers and other labor rights advocates representing workers in Chinese factories making products for global brands, and among the biggest abusers of workers are factories in Southern China making footwear for major brands. It is hard to imagine that Ivanka Trump is not aware of these problems.”
The Trump family’s way of doing business chimes well with their in-laws, the Kushners. Last month, Nicole Meyer, the sister of Ivanka Trump’s husband Jared Kushner, was in Beijing to give a sales pitch to well-heeled Chinese investors. Meyer trumpeted the Kushner family’s direct line to the top tier of American government in a not-so-subtle suggestion that investments in Kushner real estate is a guaranteed win. By abusing an investor visa program, green cards could be “bought” for a mere half-million dollars. (Last year, 75 percent [PDF] of such visas were issued to Chinese nationals.)
But the Trump family’s entanglement with the Chinese government and business sector remain unexamined by the U.S. government.
This is not the first time for Ivanka Trump’s fashion line to be embroiled in scandal. In February, Nordstrom dropped the brand from its stores, citing poor sales performance. Trump administration counselor Kellyanne Conway drew fire when she urged Americans to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.”
But Hua’s being held by Chinese security officers shows just how toxic the business practices of the Trump family can be, and how they are shielded even half a world away. Under the circumstances, no number of vapid platitudes by Ivanka Trump, like how she “celebrates #WomenWhoWork,” can mask the venality when those trying to defend people who work are jailed or have to go into hiding.