A labour activist working undercover investigating abuses at a Chinese factory that makes Ivanka Trump shoes has been detained by police and two others are missing, raising concerns the company’s ties to the US president’s family may have led to harsher treatment.
Hua Haifeng was being held by police on suspicion of illegal surveillance, his wife Deng Guilian said. Hua had worked for labour rights organisations for more than a decade and was investigating a factory in southern Guangdong province for New York-based rights group China Labor Watch.
Hua, 36, attempted to travel to Hong Kong last week but was stopped at the border. He was later questioned by police in Shenzhen, a city on the border with Hong Kong, and was released. He then traveled to Jiangxi province and disappeared, before his wife was notified by police.
“I was scared when the police called me, I was shaking with a mix of fear and anger,” Deng told the Guardian, adding she was worried she would be unable to support their two young children as well as three elderly relatives without his income.
The case highlights the political sensitivity of a brand associated with the family of Donald Trump, who repeatedly bashed China for taking American jobs on the campaign trail but has since cosied up to president Xi Jinping.
Trump himself has been granted dozens of trademarks in China since becoming president, and relatives of Jared Kushner, an advisor to the president, were recently caught trying to entice wealthy investors into luxury developments, with the prospect of receiving US green cards in return.
Foreign NGOs have also come under increased scrutiny since Xi came to power in 2012, and a newly enacted law requires groups that operate in the country to register with the police.
Two other men, Li Zhao and Su Heng, had investigated a factory in Jiangxi province that assembles Ivanka Trump shoes and were still missing on Wednesday, said Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch. He believes they have been detained by police or are being held at the factory.
“I think they were detained because this factory makes products for Ivanka Trump, so now this situation has become political and very complicated,” said Li. “I appeal to President Trump, Ivanka Trump herself, and to her brand to advocate and press for the release our activists.”
The undercover activists were to allege a host of labour violations at the plant, Li said, including paying below China’s legal minimum wage, managers verbally abusing workers and “violations of women’s rights”.
Li said he contacted the Ivanka Trump brand on April 27 to inform them of the labour violations, and urged them to ensure their suppliers were complying with Chinese law, but no changes were made.
The Ivanka Trump brand declined to comment when contacted by the Guardian. A woman who answered the phone at the Ganzhou, Jiangxi public security bureau said only, “I’m busy now,” before hanging up.
Calls to Huajian Group, the owner of the factory, went unanswered and staff at the factory where the three activists had gone undercover said they were not aware of the case.
Huajian also manufactures products for Coach, Karl Largerfeld and Kendall + Kylie at the factory where the activists went undercover.
“Over the last 17 years, we have conducted hundreds of investigations in factories across China, this is the first time any our investigators have been detained,” Li added. “The accusation from Jiangxi police has no factual basis.
Activists are usually simply ejected from the factory, or in the worst case questioned by police before being set free. China Labor Watch has previously gone undercover in Apple and Samsung plants in China, without incident.
Li Zhao, one of the missing activists, was telephoned by police before he disappeared, but was not asked to report for questioning. He worked at the same factory as Hua in Guangdong, but was fired after five days for taking photos on his mobile phone. He then went to Jiangxi and disappeared.