Ivanka Promoted Women's Empowerment In India — But Ignored Those Who Sew Her Clothing Line

by Joseph D. Lyons
Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ivanka Trump flew halfway around the world to champion women's rights and empowerment on Tuesday in India. But in a hyped-up speech, Trump failed to mention women who make Ivanka Trump products in India, where workers reportedly sew her clothing line for just a few dollars a day. Her speech fell flat for organizations that are working to improve the plight of low-wage workers around the world.

"Ivanka should use this opportunity to meet with women workers and organizers in India's garment industry and ask what 'empowerment' means to them," Sarah Newell, campaigns associate at the International Labor Rights Forum, tells Bustle.

Trump spoke in Hyderabad, India, at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, focusing her remarks on women entrepreneurs like herself. "Only when women are empowered to thrive; will our families, our economies, and our societies reach their fullest potential," she told the audience, speaking from the same stage as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But the speech didn't mention the millions of Indian women — and women around the world — who live on a little more than a dollar a day or get paid meager wages for long hours, some of whom are making clothing with Ivanka Trump's name on the label. Instead, Trump talked about women as managers, with no mention of women laborers or the human rights abuses they may face.

Organizations that work to better the lives of working women around the world say there's a disconnect between Trump's words and actions. Some 23 rights organizations penned a public letter to Trump earlier this month, asking that she take steps to protect workers at the suppliers that make products for her namesake brand. They also asked that she commit to disclosing where factories that produce Ivanka Trump products are located, so that they can be independently audited for workplace abuses.

It should be noted that Trump stepped down from her role with the brand when she joined the White House, although she still owns it. The president of the Ivanka Trump brand, Abigail Klem, expressed confidence to The Washington Post that the suppliers the company works with operate "at the highest standards."

Newell, whose organization signed that letter, tells Bustle that Trump has to do better if she wants to truly empower women:

Before Ivanka can claim to advocate on behalf of the women of the world, she needs to begin with the women in her own supply chain. Her brand's failure to take even basic measures to protect these women is an obvious indicator that her commitment to improving the lives of working women is pure lip service. She could start now by posting the names and addresses of her supplier factories online and paying fair prices to them to ensure a living wage for the thousands of women who make the products bearing her name.

We don't know much about the working conditions at the various factories that produce Ivanka Trump-branded products, but what has been reported doesn't look great. The Washington Post detailed allegedly abusive conditions and low pay at factories that make her clothing; in particular, China Labor Watch has reported that in some factories where Ivanka Trump products are made, workers are expected to be on the job for 18 hours a day while being subject to verbal abuse.

As for the other factories producing clothing and accessories for Trump's brand, it's hard to know what the working conditions for laborers are because the company and its licensees don't disclose information about their suppliers. Jessica Champagne, deputy director for field operations and strategy at the Worker Rights Consortium, says that the Ivanka Trump brand provides "zero transparency":

Ivanka Trump is operating in an industry where labor rights violations and exploitative conditions are really rampant, including in India. Most of the people producing clothing are women workers. She's operating in that sector, but her firm provides zero transparency about where they're producing their clothing, which makes it very difficult for them to be held accountable by any outside organization.

To illustrate where Trump's brand stacks up, she says that it's "doing less than, for example, Walmart."

There are some basic workplace safety issues, Champagne notes. For example, Bangladesh, which borders India and serves as base for some factories producing goods for the Ivanka Trump brand, has some of the most dangerous garment factory conditions in the entire world. But Ivanka Trump licensees haven't signed on to the Bangladesh Accord on fire and building safety.

"They're not taking basic steps to make sure that women workers producing their clothing in South Asia are even safe when they go to work in the morning," Champagne tells Bustle.

There are all sorts of other protections that companies could be taking to ensure a safe working environment for women, Champagne says.

There are real things that companies can do if they choose to to ensure that women's rights are respected, including rights like family leave and preventing sexual harassment and gender based violence in the work place.

But without disclosing where garments are made, it's impossible for outside auditors to ensure women workers' rights are respected.

Newell says she thinks Trump could do more than give a speech about entrepreneurship if she wants to make a difference. "She should use her stage to amplify the voices and demands of women who organize in oppressive environments, who fight for their rights in workplaces that can be hostile and dangerous," Newell says.