The Chinese Labor Activist Who Wants Ivanka Trump to ‘Take Responsibility’
When Ivanka Trump announced in March she would take a job at the White House advising her father, labor-rights advocate Li Qiang had found his highest-profile target yet.
By homing in on factories that supply Ivanka Trump-branded products, the founder of New York-based China Labor Watch thought the daughter of newly elected President Donald Trump could become a potent illustration of the problems facing Chinese workers like those employed by one of her suppliers -- whom he said are often overworked, underpaid and unprotected.
Li’s group had begun to look for possible Ivanka Trump suppliers the previous June when her father was campaigning for the presidency. By the time Ivanka Trump made her announcement, Li’s group had spoken to more than 100 workers around China to identify Huajian Group, which supplied Ivanka Trump shoes under license to Marc Fisher Footwear.
In March, Li sent investigators to what he said turned out to be one of the worst facilities among more than 600 his group has probed, with some employees working 18 hours, six days a week, for about a dollar an hour. Management also fined workers for being late or calling in sick, Li said.
He wrote to Ivanka Trump personally in April, urging her to take action in a letter sent to the White House. A month later, Li lost contact with the three investigators. They had been held by police, the first time in the group’s 17 years that its activists had faced criminal detention.
“I feel a bit lost,” said Li, 45. “It’s hard to understand why the Chinese government wanted to lock them up.”
Though the Huajian factory in the southeastern province of Jiangxi makes shoes for other well-known companies, Li said he focused on Ivanka Trump’s brand because he believes her actions could force changes in labor conditions in China and pave the way for other brands to seek improvements. Li said he is not seeking responses from Huajian or Marc Fisher about his findings as he wants Trump “to take responsibility.”
From a 500-square-foot office near Herald Square, Li seeks out labor abuses in the country he fled two decades ago. He sends contractors, activists and sometimes volunteers to get production-line jobs, where they interview workers, take pictures and videos. Li’s group has documented child labor, inadequate safety training, excessive overtime, poor living conditions, fines for tardiness and late wages.
“Having an independent party to investigate factory conditions is invaluable,” said Aaron Halegua, a consultant on labor issues and research fellow at New York University’s School of Law. “Otherwise, there’s often no way to corroborate or challenge the claims that brands make about their supply chain.”
The group has had major successes. Violations at Apple Inc. supplier Pegatron Corp. led the tech giant to work with the manufacturer to improve factory conditions. Samsung Electronics Co. reviewed some of its Chinese factories after abuses at suppliers were exposed.
In China Labor Watch’s latest case, Huajian denied that employees were underpaid or forced to work excessive hours. “Western media have been misled by China Labor Watch,” which has “undertaken illegal actions in China to gain twisted information, in order to profit,” the company said in a statement.
Li said his group does not seek to profit from any of its probes, including the Ivanka Trump-related investigations.
“Our goal was to use the information to expose labor abuses at the factory,” Li said. “Huajian has twisted the fact and tried to hide the truth of the breaches.”
Shanya Perera, spokeswoman for Marc Fisher, declined to comment. Abigail Klem, the Ivanka Trump brand president, has said in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg News that its licensed products haven’t been produced at the factory since March, and that licensees are “required to operate within strict social compliance regulations.” A spokeswoman for Ivanka Trump didn’t respond to requests for comment.