A labor watchdog had plans to publish a blistering report next month on the labor practices of a Chinese company that produces Ivanka Trump-branded shoes. But the group says that over the weekend, two of its investigators in China disappeared and one was arrested there, raising yet another set of questions regarding the ethics of having a presidential administration with extensive business interests in foreign countries.
China has a reputation for cracking down aggressively on labor activists and human rights groups, especially under the notably authoritarian rule of Chinese president Xi Jinping.
But China Labor Watch’s executive director Li Qiang said that it was the first time in 17 years of investigations spanning hundreds of factories that their activists have been arrested by police. Li also said that the accusations against the detained investigator — that he was suspected of illegally using eavesdropping equipment — had “no factual basis," according to the Associated Press.
The key question in light of the organization’s apparent track record of never having run-ins with the law is whether Chinese authorities were more likely to crack down on the investigators in an attempt to curry favor with the Trump administration. Ivanka Trump is the daughter of the president and an adviser to him, and she has a direct financial interest in having her businesses maintain an upstanding reputation.
The forthcoming China Labor Watch report would likely mar that reputation. According to Bloomberg, the organization claims that in two unnamed factories, workers were paid less than the minimum wage, and made to work at least 12-and-a-half hour days, at least six days a week. They claim that some of the workers were only being paid the equivalent of a dollar an hour.
In the run up to publishing the report, China Labor Watch sent a letter to Ivanka Trump making these claims. The president of her brand, Abigail Klem, said the company could not respond to the watchdog’s claims because they were provided with no specific evidence, but that they complied with labor regulations in China. (They declined to comment to the Associated Press on the disappearances and the arrest.)
But if this report comes out and provides compelling evidence of its claims, that would not be a good look for Trump. The Chinese government may know this — we know that the claims of worker exploitation in the letter to Trump were reported on publicly in the middle of May — and they could be acting on it.
It wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve gotten hints that China could be doing favors to foster warmer ties with the White House. The very day that Trump dined with Xi in April, China gave her brand provisional approval for three new trademarks. A few months ago, China signed off on dozens of new trademarks under Donald Trump’s name — and some analysts say they were approved unusually quickly, suggesting special favor.
Conveniently, Trump’s “principled realism” — the term he now uses to describe his foreign policy — does not involve criticizing China’s human rights record or its treatment of workers. The administration claims that it’s not something they’re concerned with. But the possibility that the Chinese government has intervened on behalf of Trump in order to protect its business interests probably won’t go unnoticed.