Originally published October 2, 2019
In the summer of 2018, daughter and senior advisor to President Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, announced that her namesake clothing, shoe, and handbag company would be closing down. The often quoted reasons were so that Ms Trump could focus on her role in the White House and that the brand wasn’t performing well. Only one article chronicling the timeline of the Ivanka Trump brand cited the reason being because of “conflicts of interest and increased scrutiny,” though the article did not specifically state what was the subject of that scrutiny. Let’s put a pin in that for now.
Going back in time even further, we reach the beginning of 2017. President Trump has just been sworn into office, and throughout the year, Ivanka Trump makes waves advocating for the eradication of human trafficking among the likes of the United Nations and bipartisan members of Congress. Her mission was to empower women, particularly those who were survivors of sex-trafficking, and she used her platform to give these survivors a chance to share their stories. This is precisely what privileged allies should do: recognize their powerful spotlight and use that spotlight to shine a light on those who (1) have experienced trafficking firsthand and (2) would not have a chance to be heard otherwise.
For these reasons, Ivanka Trump and, by extension, the Trump Administration, had established from the start that they aimed to combat human trafficking, something previous administrations hadn’t always had a clear priority to do. This was a message to America: things were going to be different this go-round.
This all seemed well and good, until 2017 continued to move forward. Many initiatives to fight human trafficking received major budget cuts throughout the year, and, perhaps more concerning, one of the most crucial parts of the United States’ anti-human trafficking efforts fell by the wayside. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) expired in 2017. The document, which has been at the core of US anti-trafficking legislation, was first ratified in 2000 and has undergone reauthorization periods every four years since. 2018 began without the TVPA, undermining the entire anti-human trafficking field and jeopardizing the funding of many crucial, related agencies.
(Not) Made in America
Another thing seemed to go all-but neglected in 2017. As Ivanka Trump was hosting roundtables and speaking for the UN, news quietly came out during “Made in America Week,” a celebration of American job creation, that her clothing and lifestyle brand was not manufactured in the United States. While Ivanka Trump no longer managed the day-to-day happenings in the company, she still owned and profited from it.
Much of the US apparel industry is manufactured in other countries to keep costs low. There has been pressure for companies to start shifting their supply chains domestically, both to stimulate US job growth and avoid exploitation. Companies that still outsource manufacturing have faced public scrutiny to ensure their supply chains uphold ethical codes of conduct, such as paying fair wages to workers. Despite this, Matea Gold from the Washington Post found that “the Ivanka Trump brand lags behind many in the apparel industry, both large and small companies, when it comes to having oversight of their foreign production.”
Outsourcing in a company’s supply chain is not necessarily a problem in and of itself. While contradictory to an administration with an agenda for American job growth, that’s not what we’re focusing on today. The problem is the exploitation. A factory audit in April 2017 found dozens of labor violations at the factory that produced Ivanka Trump Brand products, all within a single two-day tour session.
Among the violations were a range of issues. Some involved improper trainings around mechanical equipment and safety concerns, others involved the long hours for low pay. Workers in China were required to work 57 hours per week to meet labor demands and the average worker clocked in at over twice the legal limit China sets for overtime hours. Less than a third had social benefits that Chinese workers are entitled to and almost every worker made less than or equal to minimum wage.
Who is responsible for the supply chain?
Prior to the company closing, the president mentioned that the reason the Ivanka Trump brand lagged behind peers in sorting foreign supply chains was that the company was relatively new and small, so it couldn’t afford to scrutinize its factories’ working conditions. We know that forced labor is extremely profitable, and that multinational corporations tend to lean towards this form of trafficking to widen profit margins. These profits are massive, labor or economic exploitation is just as widespread as sex-trafficking.
Back to that pin from before. Ivanka Trump’s namesake brand and company has now shut down, but the reasons given in her statement were that she wanted to focus on her role in the White House. The other scrutiny she allegedly received has not been made publicly known, though after the audit of her factory, both the First Daughter and her team did not choose to comment. Since then, no mention has been made of the issue.
In addition to this, Ivanka Trump herself has been quiet on anti-trafficking since her tour in 2017. That is until recently in April of this year, when she visited Ethiopia to promote women’s empowerment and combat trafficking. She hasn’t apologized or acknowledged the claims that the factories that manufactured her eponymous products were using exploitative practices. Not to mention, Ethiopia was one of the countries that manufactured her shoes, which is where she went to speak out against trafficking just last month.
All in all, this is just one example of a more widespread issue. Often, public figures, whether they be celebrities, politicians, or in this case, both, support righteous causes. This isn’t a problem, in fact, it is often a wonderful thing because they use their platform to draw attention to issues like human trafficking. The problem stems in their wallets — celebrities advertise that they care about a cause while simultaneously making millions off of the very thing they claim to be fighting. It makes their words seem superficial, a paper-thin publicity stunt, rather than a personal passion supporting action.
Hannah Renea “HR” Bumgarner is a senior at the University of Denver pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International Studies. Her long term goal is to someday become a professor, focusing on human trafficking and migrant & refugee studies, so that she may contribute to research and pass along her findings in a growing field. When she’s not studying international relations, she’s listening to podcasts, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and reading poetry.
Edited by Erin Cooper, Director of Communications and Social Media
Photo Credit: Flickr
About the Human Trafficking Center
The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.
Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.
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