The arrest and disappearance of activists investigating alleged labor violations at a factory producing Ivanka Trump branded shoes has shone a spotlight on worker conditions in China, though rights groups warn that arbitrary detentions are exceedingly common, possibly involving multiple big name brands that many Americans own right now.
On Tuesday, the New York-based NGO China Labor Watch (CLW) revealed that one of its team had been arrested and two others had gone missing during an investigation of Ganzhou Huajian International Shoe City Co., which makes shoes carrying the name of U.S. President Donald Trump’s eldest daughter. The firm has plants in the southern Chinese manufacturing hubs of Dongguan and Ganzhou.
CLW executive director Li Qiang told the AP that the three men — named Hua Haifeng, Li Zhao and Su Heng — “must be held either by the factory or the police.” A police officer telephoned Hua Haifeng’s wife on Tuesday afternoon to say that he had been arrested on charges of illegal surveillance; the whereabouts of the other pair remains unknown.
“When I heard the news I was devastated and I refused to believe it at first,” Hua’s wife, Deng Guilian, who relies solely on her husband’s income to support their two young children and three elderly relatives, told TIME by phone Wednesday. “I only know that my husband was on a business trip.”
CLW, which has investigated working conditions in China for 17 years, was due to release a report next month alleging excessive overtime, low pay, and the possible misuse of student interns at the company, which is run by the Huajian Group. Li worries that the extra attention brought by links to the U.S. First Family could have resulted in harsher treatment for the activists.
“I think they were detained because this factory makes products for Ivanka Trump, so now this situation has become political and very complicated,” Li told the U.K. Guardian. “I appeal to President Trump, Ivanka Trump herself, and to her brand to advocate and press for the release our activists.”
Still, labor abuses in China go much deeper that Ivanka Trump brand shoes, applying to many of the household products that U.S. consumers purchase on a daily basis.
Over the past six years, CLW uncovered various abuses including substandard living and working conditions, wage deduction, and withholding of government issued I.D. at factories supplying parts for Apple and Samsung smartphones. Late last year, CLW found a slew of labor violations at four factories that appear to produce toys for Mattel, Hasbro, Disney, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. The firms all insist they abide by international labor laws.
“This is nothing new,” Keegan Elmer, a researcher for Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, an independent NGO doing work similar to CLW, says of the latest detentions. “We constantly find flagrant labor rights violations, and workers working hard to change their conditions, and it’s all the more disheartening to see global brands staying quiet when the police step in.”
Labor disputes have soared in China in recent years as workers become more aware of their rights, organizing to safeguard their interests despite strikes and independent labor unions being illegal in the ostensibly communist state. There were 1.77 million disputes in 2016, according to government figures, representing a rise of 10.4% in 2015 and 2.9% in 2016. China Labor Bulletin uncovered 5,000 strikes or worker protests across China during 2015-16.
As a consequence, global brands have shifted production elsewhere — typically Cambodia and Bangladesh — eating into the profits of Chinese factory bosses at a time when the nation’s economy is slowing. State security services are increasingly unleashed to fight the industrial action.
Contacted by TIME, Wei Xuegang, assistant president of Huajian Group, said, “We’re not taking any interviews at the moment, unless it is arranged by the government.”
Late last year, four labor activists were convicted of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” for their part in mediating in a labor dispute at Lide shoe factory, which produces footwear for Ralph Lauren, Coach and Calvin Klein. One, named Meng Han, remains in prison.
Workers outside the Huajian factory gate in Dongguan told the New York Times on Tuesday that they routinely work 10 or more hours a day for six days a week. China’s own labor law sets limits of eight hours work per day.
Out of office hours calls by TIME to the Ivanka Trump brand went unanswered at time of publication. However, a spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by the AP.
Ganzhou Huajian International Shoe City Co. supplies 10,000 to 20,000 pairs of shoes a year for Ivanka Trump’s brand, though is just one of 15 Chinese factories contracted by the company, which is understood to sell 20 million pairs each year. A company statement said it requires subcontractors to “comply with all applicable laws and to maintain acceptable working conditions.”
“These international brands are generally hands off when it comes to these cases,” adds Keegan. “They are in good company in a very bad way.”
—With reporting by Zhang Chi / Beijing
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