Ivanka Trump's shoes are made in China but not for long

As President Donald Trump accuses China of stealing jobs, those jobs are now leaving for other shores

Keith Bradsher
Thursday 01 June 2017 15:46 BST
Today, Chinese workers are less cheap and less willing
Today, Chinese workers are less cheap and less willing (The New York Times)

The Chinese factory workers who make shoes for Ivanka Trump and other designers gather at 7.40am every morning to sing songs.

Sometimes, they extol worker solidarity. Usually, they trumpet ties between China and Africa, the theme of their employer’s corporate anthem.

That is no accident. With many workers here complaining about excessive hours and seeking higher pay, the factory owner wants to send their jobs to Ethiopia.

The employer, Huajian International, now faces scrutiny from labour activists for how it treats workers. Chinese authorities this week detained an activist who went undercover in the company’s factory here for a labour rights group. Two other activists who worked at Huajian are missing; it is unclear whether they were detained.

The activists’ focus on Huajian’s factories points to changing labour conditions in China as manufacturers try to get more work out of an increasingly expensive labour pool.

Ms Trump’s father campaigned for the US presidency on a platform of bringing back overseas manufacturing jobs. But deep economic and demographic shifts mean a lot of low-end work - like making shoes - does not offer huge profit in China. As President Donald Trump accuses China of stealing jobs, those jobs are now leaving for other shores.

Huajian, which makes shoes for a number of American brands, was a major beneficiary of the decades long shift of manufacturing jobs away from the United States. Global brands flocked to China to tap into the country’s cheap and willing labour pool.

Today, Chinese workers are less cheap and less willing. More young people are going to college and want office jobs. The blue-collar workforce is ageing. Long workdays in a factory no longer appeal to those older workers, even with the promise of overtime pay.

In interviews in December and again Sunday and Monday outside Huajian’s vast industrial complex in this southern Chinese factory city, numerous workers interviewed by The New York Times complained about 14-hour days. While many liked the overtime pay, they said the days were too long, especially since they often included up to three hours of unpaid breaks for lunch and dinner. The workers insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation by management.

China Labour Watch, the advocacy group investigating the factories, said it found that employees had worked longer weeks than Chinese labour law allows, even excluding breaks. Such violations are common in Chinese factories.

A Huajian spokesman, Wei Xuegang, said the company knew nothing about the activists. Asked about the accusation from China Labour Watch, he said Huajian scheduled extra hours during busy times but paid workers according to the law. In a December interview, Zhang Huarong, the company’s founder and chairman, said Huajian followed overtime laws.

The Ivanka Trump brand declined to comment on the labour conditions or the activists. In terms of bringing jobs back to the US, the company said, it was “looking forward to being a part of the conversation.”

Such tensions are fuelling the drive of Huajian’s founder, Mr Zhang, to move work to Ethiopia. A former drill sergeant in the Chinese military who sometimes leads his workers on parade-ground drills, Mr Zhang says work like making shoes will never return to the United States and is increasingly difficult in China as well.

“Do Americans really like to work, to do these simple and repetitive tasks?” said Mr Zhang, in the December interview. “Young Chinese also don’t want to do this after they graduate from college.”

In many respects, China’s economy is maturing.

The number of people who turn 18 each year and do not enrol in college - the group that might consider factory work - had plummeted to 10.5 million by 2015 from 18.5 million in 2000, government data shows.

Because of the effects from China’s former “one child” policy, the figure is on track to fall below 7 million by 2020.

Costs are rising too, as the government raises minimum wages and benefits in an effort to shift China’s economy away from cheap manufacturing. Wages in Dongguan have increased ninefold since the late 1990s, Mr Zhang said.

Workers said they resented the hours, especially the unpaid breaks.

One employee’s printed schedule in December showed that the factory required 60 hours and 10 minutes of paid work per week. Chinese laws require that workweeks average no more than 44 hours and limit overtime to 36 hours per month.

On Monday, in the middle of China’s three-day Dragon Boat Festival holiday, throngs of workers filed into the factory.

Asked whether he would be eating zongzi, the traditional rice dumpling served during the holiday, one worker replied that they do not get to celebrate. Another said Huajian gave each worker two small dumplings and an egg for the holiday.

One worker, a middle-aged woman with the surname Du, said her children had gone home to central China. Du wished for time off to celebrate, so she could make rice dumplings for them.

Mr Zhang said that his company kept working hours within legal limits, despite workers who want more overtime pay.

“We cannot let them work extra hours just because they have low pay,” Mr Zhang said in a lengthy interview. “We have thought about it, but we want to do business well.”

China Labour Watch said on Tuesday that it had lost contact with three undercover activists at Huajian factories. The wife of one in the factory in Dongguan said he had been detained by the police.

Li Qiang, who started China Labor Watch 17 years ago, said the group’s activists had never before been detained by the police.

“I’m very worried about their safety,” he said. “The longer I’ve lost contact with them, the more I worry.”

Huajian peaked at 26,000 employees in China in 2006. Staffing is down to between 7,000 and 8,000 thanks to automation and the shift to Ethiopia, Mr Zhang said.

Huajian produces 100,000 to 200,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump shoes each year, a small fraction of the 8 million pairs of shoes it produces annually. The Dongguan factory makes the heels while a second factory completes the shoes. Marc Fisher Footwear, which licenses the Ivanka Trump brand for shoes manufactured by Huaijian, has said it was looking into the allegations.

Mr Zhang has had occasional brushes with Chinese labour laws, although no more than many employers in this increasingly litigious society. In 2014, Li Jianguo, a worker, sued Huajian, saying he worked 104 hours of overtime per month and was not paid for it. Huajian acknowledged in that case that the worker had been putting in 52 hours of overtime per month, according to the text of the court verdict, and agreed to pay him for that.

Mr Zhang said that workers earn $525 to $580 per month, including overtime pay but not including company-paid benefits like medical insurance and housing subsidies. Workers said that pay ranged from $380 to $580 per month.

The money can go a long way in a factory city like Dongguan. Workers said that a 215-square-foot apartment in the neighbourhood costs $29 a month to rent. The company provides a monthly housing subsidy of $11.60.

Citing labour costs and the country’s foreign investment push, Huajian is building a sprawling complex of factories, office buildings and a hotel on the southern outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Mr Zhang’s shoe factories there already have 5,000 employees.

When finished in four years, the Addis Ababa complex will be ringed by a replica of the Great Wall of China.

Some interviewed Huajian workers said they were not concerned about jobs being moved to Ethiopia, given the plentiful number of jobs in China’s southern manufacturing zone.

Still, many longtime workers face age discrimination if they leave, as other factories prefer workers under 35. Shoemaking is not strenuous and poses few physical dangers, making it more appealing to older workers.

“I really couldn’t get used to these long working hours at the beginning,” one worker said, “but I don’t really have a choice.”

© 2017 New York Times News Service

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