On Inauguration Day, President Donald Trump stood in front of the United States Capitol and vowed that his “America First” agenda would bring jobs back to the US.
“We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs,” he declared, adding: “We will follow two simple rules – buy American and hire American.”
Looking on from the front of the stage was Trump’s daughter Ivanka, the celebrity and fashion entrepreneur who would soon join him in the White House. The first daughter’s cause would be improving the lives of working women, a theme she had developed at her clothing line. She also brought a direct link to the global economy the president was railing against – a connection that was playing out at that very moment on the Pacific coast.
As the Trumps stood on stage, the Ho Chi Minh, a hulking container ship belonging to a Hong Kong-based container shipping firm, was pulling into the harbour of Long Beach, California, carrying about 500 pounds of foreign-made Ivanka Trump spandex-knit blouses. Another 10 ships hauling Ivanka Trump-branded shoes, cardigans and leather handbags bound for the US were floating in the north Pacific and Atlantic oceans and off the coasts of Malta, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and Yemen.
Those global journeys – along with millions of pounds of Ivanka Trump products imported into the US in more than 2,000 shipments since 2010 – illustrate how her business practices collide with some of the key principles she and her father have championed in the White House.
While Donald Trump has chastised companies for outsourcing jobs overseas, an examination by The Washington Post has revealed the extent to which Ivanka Trump’s company relies exclusively on foreign factories in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and China, where low-wage labourers have limited ability to advocate for themselves.
And while Ivanka Trump published a book this spring declaring that improving the lives of working women is “my life’s mission”, her company lags behind many in the apparel industry when it comes to monitoring the treatment of the largely female workforce employed in factories around the world.
From big brands such as Adidas and Kenneth Cole to smaller, newer players like California-based Everlane, many US clothing companies have in recent years made protecting factory workers abroad a priority – hiring independent auditors to monitor labour conditions, pressing factory owners to make improvements and providing consumers with details about the overseas facilities where their goods are produced.
But the Trump brand has taken a more hands-off approach. Although executives say they have a code of conduct that prohibits physical abuse and child labour, the company relies on its suppliers to abide by the policy. The clothing line declined to disclose the language of the code.
Trump, who now works full time in the White House, has stepped away from daily operations of her business. She has assumed a high-profile place on the world stage – a role that was on display at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany this month when she briefly filled in for her father during a meeting with foreign leaders, seated between President Xi Jinping and the British prime minister, Theresa May.
Trump still owns her company, which has faced increasing scrutiny in recent months for its use of overseas factories, and her representatives have said she has the power to veto new deals.
Trump did not respond to requests for comment about what efforts she made to oversee her company’s supply chain before she joined the administration. Her attorney, Jamie Gorelick, said in a statement that Trump was “concerned” about recent reports regarding the treatment of factory workers and “expects that the company will respond appropriately”.
In the wake of Trump’s departure, the brand has begun to explore hiring a non-profit workers’ rights group to increase oversight of its production and help improve factory conditions, the company’s executives say. Abigail Klem, who has been the brand’s president since 2013, says she is planning her first trip to tour some of the facilities that make Ivanka Trump products in the coming year. Klem says she is confident the company’s suppliers operate “at the highest standards”, adding: “Ivanka sought to partner with the best in the industry.” The company has not yet matched the policies of other labels because it is newer and smaller, she adds, but is now focusing on what more it can do.
“The mission of this brand has always been to inspire and empower women to create the lives they want to live and give them tools to do that,” says Klem. “We’re looking to ensure that we can sort of live this mission from top to bottom with our licensees, with our supply chain.”
The company still has no immediate plans to follow the emerging industry trend of publishing the names and locations of factories that produce its goods. It declines to provide a list of the facilities.
The Washington Post used data drawn from US customs logs and international shipping records to trace Trump-branded products from far-flung factories to ports around the US. The paper also interviewed workers at three garment factories that have made Trump products who said their jobs often come with exhausting hours, subsistence pay and insults from supervisors if they don’t work fast enough.
“My monthly salary is not enough for everyday expenses, also not for the future,” says a 26-year-old sewing operator in Subang, Indonesia, who says she has helped make Trump dresses.
Like many US-based apparel companies, the Trump brand signs deals with suppliers, which, in turn, contract manufacturing work to factories around the world. The system allows products to be sold to consumers for lower prices and creates economic opportunity – and risks – for workers in poor regions.
In China, where three activists investigating factories making her line were recently arrested, assembly-line workers produce Ivanka Trump woven blouses, shoes and handbags. Labourers in Indonesia stitch together her dresses and knit tops. Suit jackets are assembled in Vietnam, cotton tops in India and denim trousers in Bangladesh – a country where garment workers typically earn a minimum wage of about US$70 a month and where some have recently faced a harsh crackdown from factory owners after seeking higher pay.
In Ethiopia, where manufacturers have boasted of paying workers a fifth of what they earn in Chinese factories, workers made thousands of pounds of Ivanka Trump-brand shoes in 2013, shipping data shows.
Klem says the company is exploring ways to produce some goods in the US but that “to do it at a large scale is currently not possible”.
“The workers no longer exist here or only in very small, small capacity; the machinery in many instances does not exist here,” says Klem. “It is a very complex problem.”
Industry experts say about 97 per cent of all clothing and shoes purchased in the US is imported from countries where wages are lower and products can be made more cheaply. If Ivanka Trump’s company followed the president’s exhortations to move production to the US, its prices would rise dramatically, potentially pushing buyers away and dragging down company profits.
Instead of pulling production back into the US, the apparel industry has been focused on a different strategy: trying to reassure American consumers that their retail purchases are not the result of exploitation. A wide range of clothing lines now inspect their own supply chains to make sure labour standards are met, the companies say. Among them is Levi Strauss, which, like Trump’s brand, licenses some of its production from a large New York-based clothing distributor called G-III Apparel.
Many smaller brands turn to industry-backed groups, such as the Fair Labor Association or the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, to help address factory conditions and worker treatment.
Krochet Kids, which sells dresses for less than US$60, includes clothing tags hand-signed by workers at its facilities in Uganda and Peru. Reformation, whose dress Trump wore to a recent congressional picnic, screens its overseas suppliers and recently moved to an expanded factory in downtown Los Angeles, where it offers guided tours.
“The questions today aren’t whether to engage in [monitoring factories], but whether to go beyond, all the way down to the cotton fields,” says Doug Cahn, a former Reebok executive who pioneered the development of corporate codes of conduct and now consults for brands and manufacturers.
The Trump company’s relatively passive approach is notable – as is its lack of participation in industry efforts to improve conditions for workers, according to labour advocates.
“I have been doing this stuff for 20 years, and I have never seen her brand in any of these venues,” says Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum.
Klem says that “as a small, young brand, we did not have the chance to influence the debate around social compliance issues, but that has obviously changed during this past year. We recognise that our brand name carries a special responsibility.”
Ivanka Trump was a 26-year-old model and guest judge on her father’s reality show, The Apprentice, when she took on her first solo venture outside the family business: lending her name and creative energy to a Manhattan diamond boutique.
From the beginning, Trump said she envisioned Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry as a glitzy refuge for the upper crust. In a 2007 Arabian Business magazine profile, headlined “Daddy’s Girl”, Ivanka Trump said the jewellery, mostly priced between US$5,000 and US$50,000, would be marketed to ambitious, wealthy women who “have everything, yet ... nothing to prove”.
Initially, Trump’s brand put an emphasis on sustainability. In 2011, her company introduced a short-lived bridal jewellery collection made from “eco-friendly” Canadian-mined diamonds and recycled platinum. The following year, entrepreneur Russell Simmons’ Diamond Empowerment Fund, a non-profit organisation that works to help educate youth in diamond-producing countries, gave her its “Newest and Brightest” award.
“It’s just good business to care about everyone involved in the various layers of production ... especially when the end product is such a beautiful symbol of love,” Trump said, according to a news release by the group. By then, she had started expanding into other products, eventually signing deals for clothes, shoes and handbags.
Shipping data shows that tonnes of Ivanka Trump-brand shoes were rolling off factory production lines in Dongguan, in Guangdong province, and onto container ships with names such as APL Beijing and Hyundai Dynasty.
Trump’s clothing line – styled to sell an image of modern metropolitan glamour – quickly became the core of her business, with mid-market prices and an expanding collection of stylish pumps, off-the-shoulder tops and flower-print cocktail dresses.
In late 2012, Trump signed a deal with G-III, an apparel group known for its work with Guess, Calvin Klein and celebrity brands such as Jessica Simpson. Trump’s collection flourished and, with it, production ramped up in G-III’s contract factories across China and Vietnam, according to shipping data.
In 2016, G-III told Forbes that the Ivanka Trump clothing line had generated US$100 million in retail revenue in the past year.
Trump served as her company’s star marketer, wearing her brand’s nude heels and a US$10,000 bracelet during photo shoots and television interviews.
In last year’s presidential campaign, Trump took the opportunity to showcase her products on the national stage. After she paid tribute to her father at the Republican National Convention in one of her soft-pink sheath dresses, her social media team urged buyers to “shop Ivanka’s look”, and the US$138 Chinese-made dress quickly sold out.
In the company’s Trump Tower headquarters, in New York’s Manhattan, a staff of about 16 employees runs the Ivanka Trump design team, social media accounts and branding campaigns – including #WomenWhoWork, a movement-as-hashtag that emerged as the company’s driving motto. Its marketing mixes promotions for evening bags with celebrations of female power. What was once advertised as trendy clothing for women in “the boardroom and beyond” has evolved into what IvankaTrump.com calls “a solution-oriented lifestyle brand, dedicated to the mission of inspiring and empowering women to create the lives they want to lead”.
In recent months, however, efforts to market the upbeat Ivanka Trump clothing brand have run headlong into the polarising Trump political brand. After the Nordstrom chain of department stores dropped her line in February, citing low sales, the president complained on Twitter that his daughter had been “treated so unfairly”, and pro-Trump supporters rushed to buy her products.
Detractors of the president, meanwhile, have posted negative reviews of Ivanka Trump items online, needling her for relying on foreign labour.
Klem says the controversies have not hurt sales. She declines to disclose figures, but says that the brand’s business is “growing rapidly”. Revenue was up 21 per cent in 2016, with continuing growth in 2017, executives say.
In May, Lord & Taylor stores showcased the newest items in the Ivanka Trump denim collection: a series of indigo, white and pink trousers retailing for US$79. Affixed to each is a label brandishing the #WomenWhoWork slogan, featuring aspirational admonishments such as “Act purposefully” and “Invest in each other”.
The labels on the jeans show they were made for G-III Apparel in Bangladesh, whose garment industry has weathered a series of deadly factory disasters, including a 2013 building collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers. In the wake of that tragedy, Disney pulled its production out of the country, and brands such as Walmart and Gap vowed to pay for safety training for factory managers.
Shipping records do not reveal which factories in the country produce Ivanka Trump goods, and both the brand and G-III refuse to say which facilities make her products.
G-III spokesman Chris Giglio says the company’s supply chain is “routinely audited by us and by independent third parties. When issues arise, we work with our local partners to find and implement safe, fair and sustainable solutions.”
Along with facing safety risks, Bangladeshi garment workers toil for one of the world’s lowest minimum wages.
“We are the ultra-poor,” says Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi labour organiser and former garment worker who was first hired by a factory at the age of 12. “We are making you beautiful, but we are starving.”
In December, thousands of workers seeking higher pay went on strike outside the capital city of Dhaka. In response, police rounded up and arrested several dozen labour organisers, and factory owners filed criminal complaints against hundreds of workers, according to Human Rights Watch. An estimated 1,500 garment workers were suspended or fired.
A number of apparel brands have called on factories to halt the worker crackdown. A spokesman for H&M says that it has instructed Dhaka factory owners that the company will pull its business unless the factories reinstate the fired workers and drop the criminal complaints.
Trump’s brand and G-III have not publicly addressed the crackdown. Klem says that the company’s code of conduct gives workers in its supply chain “the right to freely associate in accordance with the laws of the countries in which they are employed”.
In recent years, hundreds of clothing lines and manufacturers have poured millions into financing safety improvements in garment factories through two major initiatives, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a group made up of 29 North American retailers. Neither Trump’s company nor G-III Apparel has contributed to those efforts, according to programme officials.
Jessica Champagne, deputy director for field operations and strategy at the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring group, says that “any responsible brand sourcing from Bangladesh” should support the accord, adding that “failure to do so puts workers’ safety at risk”.
Klem says the company would consider doing so if its yet-to-be-hired workers rights consultant recommends such a move. G-III did not respond to questions about why it does not participate in the factory improvement programme. At a panel discussion last year, one of its executives noted that the distributor has a set of standards that its facilities must meet.
“We have a team on the ground running around every factory in Asia and visiting these factories and drilling it into their head what these requirements mean,” Adam Ziedenweber, vice-president of global sourcing compliance, said in the March 2016 event. But he also noted the challenge of keeping prices low while making investments in factories. “You know, the retailers, the consumers aren’t asking for it,” he said. “None of the consumers say, ‘Well, this was made in a building that was going to fall down.’”
Financial insecurity is a constant companion for the predominantly female workforce at PT Buma, a factory in Indonesia’s West Java province that produced a batch of Ivanka-branded knit dresses that shipping records show arrived in Newark on January 18, two days before Trump’s inauguration.
K, a 26-year-old sewing-machine operator, says that she makes the equivalent of US$173 a month, the region’s minimum wage. Her full name, like that of other workers, is being withheld because the workers fear being punished or fired for speaking to the media.
She says she spends US$23 to rent her small studio in the bustling factory town of Subang, where she sleeps on a mattress on the floor and hangs her clothes from a string hung along the wall. She saves the rest for her two-year-old daughter but worries she will not be able to afford elementary school fees, which can cost as much as US$225 a year.
With no child care, K is forced to leave the toddler at home with her parents in their village, a journey of about 90 minutes by motorcycle across rice fields. On the weekend, she joins an exodus of parents from Subang who clamber onto motorbikes and into shared vans, racing home for brief reunions.
“I really miss the moments when we play together,” says K.
A 25-year-old woman says PT Buma hires her as a fabric cutter on a day-to-day basis, paying her a monthly salary that ranges between US$68 to US$135 for as much as 24 days of work – far below the region’s minimum wage and a rate that workers’ advocates say is probably a violation of local law.
The fabric cutter and her husband have to borrow money to cover their daily expenses and those of their 10-year-old son, who lives 45 minutes away with his grandmother. She sees him about once a month.
Their possessions consist of her husband’s motorbike and their clothes.
Inside the factory, workers say supervisors berate employees if they fall behind their targets or if stitches need to be redone.
PT Buma participates in Better Work, an international programme to improve garment industry conditions, according to the Better Work website.
A PT Buma representative who declines to give his name says the factory no longer produces Ivanka Trump clothing. He says the company refuses to answer any more questions and abruptly ends the call.
When asked about the working environment at PT Buma, Klem says in a statement that the brand hopes to develop programmes to support the “thousands of women” in its supply chain.
For K, the dresses she has helped produce – which retail for as much as US$138 – seem as out of reach as the daughter of the US president herself, whose name the worker says she now wishes she had chosen for her own little girl.
“Ivanka clothes are beautiful, expensive, sexy – just perfect,” she says.
The dangers to workers who try to seek better labour conditions are especially acute in China, where activists say heavy surveillance and police presences are used to protect company profits and the country’s lucrative reputation as the “factory of the world”.
Ivanka Trump’s products have been made in more than two dozen factories across China since 2010, shipping data shows.
Yen Sheng, a Hong Kong-based company with factories in Dongguan where workers are paid between US$190 and US$289 a month, has shipped thousands of pounds of Ivanka Trump cowhide-leather handbags and other items since 2015, customs records show.
Employees in Dongguan say the company withholds sick pay unless they are hospitalised and avoids paying overtime by outsourcing work to the unregulated one-room factories that dot Dongguan’s back streets. But pressing for change is not an option, they say.
“If you don’t work, other people will,” says one woman at the company’s Dongguan subsidiary, Yen Hing Leather Works. “If you protest, the company will ask the police to handle it. The owner is very rich. He can ask the police to come.”
Trump brand executives say its products are not made at Yen Hing. A manager at the Dongguan factory, Huang Huihong, says that its workers have produced Ivanka Trump goods in the past.
Officials at Yen Hing deny the workers’ allegations, saying they “strictly follow the laws in our business operation”. Mondani, the Trump brand’s handbag supplier, did not respond to requests for comment.
The work conditions at Chinese factories that make Trump’s products have gained public attention in recent weeks after the detentions of three activists from a group called China Labor Watch who were investigating the facilities. The group said it found evidence at one facility of labourers working 18-hour days and enduring verbal abuse from managers, allegations that the Chinese factory denied.
Chinese authorities accused the activists of using illegal surveillance equipment and suggested they might have been selling commercial secrets to foreign entities. They were released on bail in late June. A trial is pending.
The US State Department denounced the arrests, saying that labour rights activists “have been instrumental in helping [...] American companies understand the conditions involving their supply chains”.
Li Qiang, the group’s executive director, says it had never faced such police pressure in nearly two decades of experience investigating factories and says he believes this case was handled differently because “this is Ivanka Trump’s factory”.
Hua Haifeng, one of the detained activists, told The Washington Post after his release: “The first question the police asked was to the effect of ‘whether you know it’s Ivanka Trump’s factory and then came here to investigate’.” Local police officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Li’s group says it has sent four letters since April to Ivanka Trump at the White House detailing the working conditions in the factory and asking for her to advocate for their colleagues.
Deng Guilian, Hua’s wife, also pleaded with Trump to intervene. “For her, it’s just a matter of a few words, but those few words would save the entire family,” says Deng.
Trump has not spoken publicly about the case. Gorelick, her attorney, says that Trump, because of her White House role, “has been advised that she cannot ask the government to act in an issue involving the brand in any way, constraining her ability to intervene personally”.
Klem says in a statement that while the factory has not produced Trump goods since March, “the integrity of our supply chain is a top priority and we take all allegations very seriously”. The company that supplies Trump-brand shoes, Marc Fisher, says it will look into the allegations.
In the meantime, Trump has been increasing her international profile as an advocate for working women. During a trip this spring with her father to Saudi Arabia, she told a group of Saudi female leaders that she aims “to help empower women in the United States and around the globe”. In May, she published her book, Women Who Work, in which she detailed her commitment to promoting equitable work conditions.
“As a leader and a mother, I feel it’s as much my responsibility to cultivate an environment that supports people – and the roles we hold, both in our family and business lives – as it is to post profits,” Trump writes. “One cannot suffer at the expense of the other – they go hand in hand.”
In late June, she helped unveil the State Department’s latest human-trafficking report, which labelled China one of the world’s worst offenders on forced labour.
“Let us recommit ourselves,” she said, “to finding those still in the shadows of exploitation.”
The chief authors of this report are Matea Gold, Drew Harwell, Maher Sattar and Simon Denyer. The Washington Post’s Alice Crites and Julie Tate in Washington; Andri Tambunan in Subang, Indonesia; Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Luna Lin, in Beijing, also contributed.