Ever since her father launched his presidential campaign — promising to “make America great again,” partly by bringing back traditional manufacturing jobs from overseas — Ivanka Trump has been heavily criticized for having the majority of the products on her personal line made in Chinese factories with questionable working conditions. However, rather than respond by shifting production to the US or working to improve conditions at Chinese factories, Ivanka’s brand has instead made it more difficult to untangle the president’s daughter’s ties in China.
According to an Associated Press investigation, the source of Trump’s handbags, shoes and clothes is now a bigger secret than ever before, raising yet more concerns about who could be influencing the presidential family through their tangled web of private business interests.
In the months since she took her White House role, public information about the companies importing Ivanka Trump goods to the U.S. has become harder to find. Information that once routinely appeared in private trade tracking data has vanished, leaving the identities of companies involved in 90 percent of shipments unknown. Even less is known about her manufacturers. Trump’s brand, which is still owned by the first daughter and presidential adviser, declined to disclose the information.
The deepening secrecy means it’s unclear who Ivanka Trump’s company is doing business with in China, even as she and her husband, Jared Kushner, have emerged as important conduits for top Chinese officials in Washington. The lack of disclosure makes it difficult to understand whether foreign governments could use business ties with her brand to try to influence the White House — and whether her company stands to profit from foreign government subsidies that can destroy American jobs. Such questions are especially pronounced in China, where state-owned and state-subsidized companies dominate large swaths of commercial activity.
Like many of the world’s most successful brands these days, Ivanka Trump’s brand doesn’t actually make its products directly. Instead, the company outsources production by signing contracts with suppliers. This tactic gives the brand an excuse when investigators discover worker abuses at factories churning out Ivanka Trump shoes.
Such was the case earlier this year when the watchdog group Fair Labor Association released a report regarding one Chinese factory where workers were clocking nearly 60 hours a week while making only around $1 per hour — below minimum wage in China — manufacturing clothing for brands like Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Ivanka Trump. In addition, investigators found that the workers at the factory received few benefits (being granted only five days of leave a year) and worked in unsafe conditions.
Afterward, China Labor Watch executive director Li Qiang wrote an open-letter to Ivanka asking her to help change the conditions in factories that supply her brand with shoes, urging that “Your words and deeds can make a difference in these workers’ lives.”
About a month later, in late May, three undercover labor activists investigating labor abuses at another Chinese factory making clothing for Ivanka Trump’s brand were arrested, with China Labor Watch, a New York-based non-profit that over the past two decades has conducted investigations into hundreds of factories which manufactured goods for some of the world’s most popular brand names, saying afterward that it had never before encountered this level of scrutiny from authorities.
Initially, China refused to release the activists, stating that they had been arrested for alleged use of illegal surveillance equipment. With the fate of the activists uncertain, Professor Jerome Cohen, an expert in China’s criminal justice system, called for Ivanka to issue a statement about their detention, saying that her voice would considerably help the men’s legal prospects, adding that her company had a “moral obligation” to speak out.
However, Ivanka remained quiet on the subject. At the end of June, the three activists were released on bail pending a trial.
In view of these scandals, it’s hardly surprising that Ivanka Trump’s brand is now trying to be more secretive about who they do business with in China. The AP looked over shipping data, discovering that this year 85% of shipments of the brand’s goods to the US originated in China and Hong Kong, but found the goods difficult to trace beyond that.
The companies that shipped Ivanka Trump merchandise to the U.S. are listed for just five of 57 shipments logged by Panjiva from the end of March, when she officially became a presidential adviser, through mid-September. Panjiva collects data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which did not immediately release the missing data to AP.
While in many cases the manufacturer ships goods directly, merchandise can also be made by one company and shipped by another trading or consolidation company.
There used to be more visibility. Last year, 27 percent of the companies that exported Ivanka Trump merchandise to the U.S. were identified in Panjiva’s records, and back in 2014 a full 95 percent were named. For two of Ivanka Trump’s licensees — G-III Apparel Group Ltd. and Marc Fisher Footwear — the number of shipments appears to plunge in 2015, likely because they “requested to hide” their shipment activity, according to Panjiva records. Neither company responded to AP’s questions.
Meanwhile, the Ivanka Trump brand itself has declined to release the names of its suppliers, something that has Democratic National Committee spokesman Daniel Wessel concerned. “What we don’t know is the extent to which foreign governments could use, or are already using, her business ties to try to influence the White House,” he said.
While Ivanka’s brand has said that in order to avoid any potential conflict of interest, it will not do business with foreign state-owned companies or benefit from Chinese government subsidies, it acknowledges that its client companies are still free to do so.
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