The case of three labor rights activists detained in China for trying to investigate a factory that makes Ivanka Trump brand shoes highlights the pervasive problem of labor abuses and lax enforcement by authorities.
But rights activists said President Donald Trump's daughter, who is also his assistant, could help make a difference if she speaks out about the case.
The Ivanka Trump brand has yet to comment on the plight of the activists, but has confirmed shoes for the brand were made at the factory. But the company has said its last order was placed in March.
Rights activists are urging the Chinese government to give labor activists and investigators more room to freely expose labor rights violations.
So far, however, the Chinese government has refused to release the activists and has accused them of using "illegal monitoring devices" and "interfering in the company's normal operation and production activities."
China Labor Watch (CLW), the group the labor activists work for, has been conducting similar investigations at Chinese factories for years. They said the response to the investigation at the factory making Ivanka Trump shoes is unprecedented in the nonprofit’s 17-year existence.
CLW founder and executive director Li Qiang said his New York-based nonprofit group has obtained solid evidence in the form of still pictures and videos that her branded shoes have been manufactured in factories of the Huajian Group for the past four years, the place where labor abuses were allegedly uncovered.
“We can prove that her products were manufactured in the factories and that many workers have been underpaid or forced to work overtime as well as a slew of labor abuses,” Li told VOA.
The investigation was conducted by CLW rights activists Hua Haifeng, Li Zhao and Su Heng, who went undercover and posed as temp workers in Huajian factories between March and May, but were later been detained by Chinese police.
“The brand has repeatedly boasted in oversea markets that their products comply with [strict] regulations. But now its advertising looks false. So she [Trump] has to speak up [against the arrest of investigators] and shoulder some responsibility for the [Chinese] manufacturer’s violations of labor rights,” Li added.
He said in his assessment, Chinese labor accounts for only 1 percent of Ivanka Trump’s branded shoes, which are priced at more than $100 each in U.S. stores.
Li added he has mailed evidence to Trump and the U.S. State Department and expects the first daughter to call for the release of his Chinese investigators and to further pressure its supplier into improving working conditions there.
Last week, the U.S. State Department called for the activists’ release or for Chinese authorities to afford them a "judicial and fair trial, protections to which they are entitled."
The State Department also highlighted the important role labor activists play in helping U.S. companies understand conditions in their China supply chain.
One industry insider tells VOA that suppliers of top-tier brands can easily lose orders if they fail to meet requirements and operate within strict social compliance regulations.
However, activists say violations of worker rights can be easily found in small- and medium-sized Chinese suppliers, which are deeply caught in cut-throat pricing competition.
Pervasive labor violations
Keegan Elmer, a researcher at Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, said labor violations are pervasive in China.
“It’s not just global brands. And it’s not just little tiny sweatshops. It’s really quite pervasive and it’s something that’s the nature of work in China these days,” Elmer told VOA.
He said the group’s Strike Map has documented thousands of worker strikes every year, which are not limited to smaller brands.
Among those strikes, many labor activists have risked being put behind bars even if they have abided by laws and followed due processes to expose such violations, according to Elmer.
Elmer said industries and the Chinese government need to establish appropriate mechanisms, through which workers can report abuses and help improve working conditions in China.
“The worker, in their collective action, has shown that they are the best keeper of their own interests. And the government should for example through effective, regular, collective bargaining let workers be their own monitors of their own bosses and conditions. That’s the real way forward,” Elmer said.