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Sweatshops and the Trump Brand


At least one person investigating labor conditions at the Chinese sweatshops for the Ivanka Trump brand has been detained by the state.

A labor activist who had been working undercover at a Chinese factory that makes shoes for Ivanka Trump and other brands has been detained by the police, as concerns rise over a crackdown on the country’s advocacy groups.

The activist, Hua Haifeng, who was working on behalf of the advocacy group China Labor Watch, was detained on suspicion of illegal eavesdropping, his wife, Deng Guimian, said late Tuesday. Mr. Hua and two other labor activists had been undercover at two Chinese factories that make shoes for Ms. Trump and other brands. They all disappeared on Saturday, according to their employer, China Labor Watch.

They were last seen in Ganzhou, a large city in southern Jiangxi Province. It is unclear whether the other two were detained.

The group had been investigating labor conditions at the two factories, one in Ganzhou and another in Dongguan. Their preliminary findings, which had not yet been made public, detail that workers were subject to exceptionally long hours.

Ms. Deng said a police officer from the Public Security Bureau in Jiangxi Province in south-central China called her on Tuesday afternoon to officially notify her of the detention. Mr. Hua could be held for days or weeks before being formally arrested.

Ms. Deng said her husband had worked for nongovernmental organizations, mainly related to labor issues, for more than a decade. She added that without his pay, it would be difficult to care for the couple’s daughter, 7, and son, 3, as well as three elderly relatives.

“I was panicked, very angry and almost lost control of my temper,” when the officer phoned, she said.

Li Qiang, the director of China Labor Watch, said that the three labor activists did not have any illegal eavesdropping equipment, and speculated that Mr. Hua and the other activists might have been detained over the use of cellphones. “Jiangxi police are just looking for an excuse,” he said.

The story here really isn’t the Trump brand. The Trump brand is definitely a useful entryway into the everyday horrors of the sweatshop and the repression of those who try to make them better or expose the exploitation that goes on inside those walls. If anti-Trump activism finally brings attention to sweatshops, then that’s a positive thing. But it’s like how Apple gets held up as representative for the problems of Foxconn and the electronics industry and McDonald’s for franchising and fast food. The exploitation and repression here is systemic. This is what happens to labor activists in China, Bangladesh, Guatemala, and other countries all the time. It’s only getting attention in the U.S. because it was Ivanka’s products the people were investigating. The story we should be focusing on is why workers have to suffer and die making our clothing.

This is also why telling Chinese workers to deal with the problem in China by pressuring their own government to make changes is a cheap argument that lets both apparel companies at the top of the supply chains and consumers off the hook. This is what happens when Chinese people fight for better labor rights in China. If we think these problems are important enough to solve, we have to hold corporations using these supply chains accountable. To do so, we have to demand that trade deals have enforceable regulations about corporate behavior and working conditions through courts or processes that everyday citizens can access and we have to open up U.S. courts for Chinese citizens or their associates in the U.S. to sue the companies for their actions in producing their good overseas.

Let this Trump story start moving us in that direction.

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