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Life Isn’t Great for the Overseas Factory Workers Making Ivanka Trump’s Shoes

As the first daughter steps out for President Trump’s inauguration, an expert explains what life is like for the women who make her shoes—and why things will likely only get worse for them.

Sirin Kale

Sirin Kale

Photo via Flickr user Michael Vadon

Today, Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States. Online betting sites are offering even odds that he'll be impeached at some point during his first term, but let's not get too hopeful. Whatever happens from this day out, one thing is certain: that Ivanka Trump will sail, serenely as a swan, through it all without a hair or hemline out of place.

The first daughter has built a lucrative and profitable lifestyle brand predicated on a loosely feminist, late-capitalist vision of the working woman. She sells cropped blazers, strappy sandals, and totes. Surprisingly, Ivanka didn't wear her own designs for her father's inauguration, preferring a white Oscar De La Renta dress. Perhaps her velvet-covered cocktail bag wasn't big enough for a spare copy of her father's allegedly self-penned inaugural address. Around the world, people watched and noted what she wore. Some of them might even have been the garment workers in Ivanka Trump's factories, the very women who help stitch her clothes.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump threatened a trade war with China, to international alarm. And in his inauguration speech, President Trump pledged to rebuild the nation using "American hands and American labor." But the Chicago Tribune reports that his daughter's $100 million fashion label isn't manufactured at home, using homegrown labor. It's made abroad, in Asian countries. According to one Racked investigation, Ivanka Trump-branded footwear has actually been manufactured in China's industrial heartland, the Pearl River Delta.

According to Racked, one factory—Xuankai Footwear Ltd.—has produced over 130,000 pounds of Ivanka shoes to date. Workers at the factory alleged systematic malpractice at the factory, including underpayment for overtime hours and the withholding of wage payments. "I couldn't bear it anymore," said a former worker called Tian, who complained of only being able to sleep six hours a night. "It's a garbage factory," said another ex-employee. Entry-level workers earned, on average, 3,000 yuan ($436) a month—barely enough to get Tiffany Trump and Marla Maples a blow-out.

In a statement to trade publication Footwear News, a business affiliate of Ivanka Trump's line—responsible for the brand's production and sourcing—confirmed that they used the Xuankai factory. "Earlier this year, the factory Xuankai was audited by our consultant with no compliance violations," a spokesperson said.

Read more: How Much It Sucks to Be a Sri Lankan Worker Making Beyoncé's New Clothing Line

I reached out to Ivanka's PR team for more information about their supply chain—or any information, as none is listed on their website—but no-one answered my emails.

Ironically, Trump has pledged to oppose the overseas manufacturing of US products. At a Republican nominee debate in Detroit, he promised audiences, "I'm going to bring jobs back to the United States like no one else can." But reports suggest that Ivanka isn't moving her manufacturing operation back to the US on her father's account. According to AFP, it looks like the production of Ivanka footwear may be moving to a country where wages are even lower: Ethiopia.

Ivanka Trump speaking to reporters. Photo via Flickr user Marc Levin

In the same AFP interview, major Chinese footwear producer Huajian Group claimed to have made about 100,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump-branded shoes at its Dongguan factory in the Pearl River Delta. Now it is moving production to Addis Ababa. A spokesperson told AFP that one Chinese worker's salary could pay for five workers in the African capital city.

"There seems to be a real gold rush in Ethiopia right now with a growing garment and shoe industry," explains Dr Rebecca Prentice of the University of Sussex. "Companies are moving from low-wage countries like China and Bangladesh to Ethiopia."

She adds: "Whatever their rhetoric, companies do not do this to improve the lives of workers or participate in an expansion of labor rights; they do it because they can get things produced more cheaply."

Brands like Ivanka's dictate the terms of production with profit, quality, and timeliness their only real considerations.

Thulsi Narayanasamy of anti-poverty group War on Want agrees. "Brands like Ivanka's dictate the terms of production with profit, quality, and timeliness their only real considerations."

We often focus on the conditions of the people working in these factories (and rightly so). But if manufacturing shifts to Ethiopia, or even back to the US, Narayanasamy raises concerns over the fate of the Chinese workers toiling to make Ivanka's leather-tasseled brogues.

"One of the biggest issues facing factory workers in China are redundancies," she says. "This is happening en masse in the Dongguan region, where wages and severance have been left unpaid. Most of the workers in that region are ageing female migrant workers who rely on their pension that legally should be paid to them, but often is not, especially when factories unexpectedly close or business moves elsewhere."

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In some cases, greater understanding of worker and labor rights actually serves to drive companies out of the country. "Wages in China are now the second highest in the region after Malaysia, and have been increasing every year," Narayanasamy explains. "Workers in mainland China are also increasingly aware of their rights and using collective action such as strikes to bargain for better conditions and wages. Many factories are closing down and moving to countries with cheaper labor or other, more remote parts of China where wages are lower and rights groups struggle to access easily."

And Ethiopia is the last frontier when it comes to a developing nation with a sketchy record on employer obligations and labor rights. "Ethiopian manufacturers are able to take advantage of widespread unemployment to offer incredibly low wages that will build yet another hub of the working poor," Narayanasamy adds. It's a brutal, degrading, and exhausting life: "Earning less than $1 a day, workers making shoes for brands like Trump's will not even be able to cover their cost of living, and by most indicators will form part of the extreme poor." (According to a Bloomberg report in 2014, Huajian factory wages in Ethiopia are about $40 a month, which is still less than 10 percent of the comparative wage in China.)

The reason all this is allowed to take place? Apathy—on the part of consumers like you or me, as well as governments, businesses and their product suppliers.

"Where profit margins are the only concern, exploitation is inevitable by Western companies who can manufacture abroad with absolute impunity," Narayanasamy says. "They know there is no way to truly be held accountable for the human rights abuses they are complicit in."