The young woman, new to the grind of Chinese factory life, knew the man who called himself Kalen only by the photo on his chat profile. It showed him with a pressed smile holding a paper cup in a swank skyscraper somewhere late at night.
Yu Chunyan and her friends didn’t know what to make of him. Some thought his eyes were shifty. Others said he looked handsome in a heroic sort of way.
Yu was among the doubters. The daughter of factory workers, Yu paid her way through college by working in factories herself. She and thousands of other students had toiled through the summer of 2016 assembling iPhones at a supplier for Apple Inc., but they hadn’t been paid their full wages.
Kalen was offering to help – and asking nothing in return.
This struck Yu as suspicious. If there was one thing she had learned in her 23 years it was this: “There’s no free lunch.”
Disputes like these often don’t go well for workers in China. But over the years, suicides and sweatshop scandals have pushed some companies, like Apple, to reconsider their approach to workplace fairness.
Today, a growing number of brands, including Apple, Nike Inc., Gap Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., and the H&M Group prioritize transparency and take public responsibility for conditions throughout their global supply chains. Labor rights groups like the one Kalen worked for, China Labor Watch, can play a useful watchdog role for these companies, by helping them understand what’s really going on at their suppliers.
But not everyone has embraced this new approach.
When China Labor Watch confronted Ivanka Trump’s brand with charges of labor abuses at its Chinese suppliers, her company refused to engage. It made no public effort to investigate the allegations: forced overtime, pay as low as $1 an hour, and crude verbal and physical abuse – including one incident in which a man was hit in the head with the sharp end of a high-heeled shoe.
Ivanka Trump, who still owns but no longer closely manages her namesake brand, stayed silent. Neither she nor her brand would comment for this story.
Unlike Apple, her brand doesn’t publish the identities of its manufacturers. In fact, its supply chains have only grown more opaque since the first daughter took on her White House role.
But as the summer of 2016 was ending, Yu Chunyan had no idea she was about to get an education in geopolitics and corporate social responsibility. She wanted one thing only: her wages. And she saw one way to get them: The stranger with the odd English name.
Kalen and China Labor Watch would link Yu not just to Apple, but ultimately, to the daughter of the President of the United States. Their intersecting stories highlight the contrasting approaches Apple and Ivanka Trump’s brand have taken to workplace fairness – and the impact those decisions have had on the ground in China.
It would take Yu more than a year to discover who Kalen really was.
No help came
When Yu was still a baby, her parents went to work at a factory in one of the southern boomtowns of Guangdong province. As a child, entire years passed without a visit from her mother or father.
This was an ordinary enough fate in China, and Yu grew up bouncing between her grandparents’ homes in central China’s Henan province.
The first extraordinary thing that happened to Yu was her high school entrance exam. She aced it, despite her middling grades, scoring even higher than the known overachievers in class.
The shock of her accomplishment gave Yu a soaring sense of her own potential. She raced to tell her mother.
“Oh,” was her mother’s stony response.
Yu’s test score opened the possibility, unsettling to her parents, that she would not marry young, produce grandchildren and start earning money for the family.
Her parents regarded aspiration warily: Excellence would only lead to inflated expectations. Just the sort of thing, her parents feared, that could crush a person. Better to remain where you are, bound by a certain, riskless horizon.
Yu did not agree. “As long as I want something, I will get it,” she decided.
Her parents let her stay in school, but if Yu wanted to go to college, she would have to pay her own way.
And so she did. She enrolled in a college in Henan province. Ultimately, she wanted to do something creative, like design; in the meantime factory jobs weren’t a bad way to make money.
In July 2016, Yu took her place on the assembly line at Jabil Inc.’s Green Point factory in Wuxi, a city near Shanghai. She spent her 12-hour shift snapping the back cover of the iPhone 7 into a mold and passing it down the line.
“It seems simple,” Yu said. “But if you work the whole day doing this your hands will be really tired. Normally, it’s a job for a man.”
Her group’s production quota kept going up, climbing from 2,000 to 50,000 units a day, Yu said. She got dizzy. Her hands hurt. She thought: “When will it be over?”
In August 2016, she quit, ignoring admonitions that her pay would be docked 500 yuan ($79, at today’s rates) for leaving early.
Yu made the 12-hour train trip back to school in Henan and on Sept. 10, her final paycheck hit her bank account. It was an ugly surprise. She was 1,100 yuan short of the 4,930 yuan she expected. Her salary was supposed to cover her tuition. Now it didn’t.
“I was furious,” she said. “I thought that no matter what I would get my money back.”
She called the factory and the labor broker who had gotten her the job only to be informed of a range of surprising fees, some legitimate, others not.
Yu called the labor union at Green Point for help. “Useless,” she said. She called the local labor bureau, but no one picked up.
On Chinese social media, Yu found a chorus of despair as other students – the children of farmers, factory and construction workers – vented about being stiffed on WeChat, QQ and Weibo.
“Everyone had an attitude like, ‘Well, it has nothing to do with me,'” said Zhuang Huaqian, an electrical engineering student at Hunan University of Technology, who spent the summer assembling iPhones in a moon suit of dust-free clothing.
The head of one of the labor brokers in the dispute, Ding Yan, said his company had done nothing wrong. “Wages are our bottom line. We will never underpay them,” he said. “I wouldn’t risk this brand.”
Frustrated, the students took their case to the press. A few articles appeared detailing their complaints, but Yu and another student said postings began to disappear. Were they being censored, they wondered?
The local government published an article on an official Weibo account that said authorities acted swiftly and more than 2,100 students had been repaid. The post included complaint hotlines workers could call.
Chen Jianbin, head of Wuxi’s labor security supervision unit, said his team had to sort through verbal contracts, informal intermediaries and fake complaints apparently lodged by people paid to smear competing labor agencies.
“We were trying our best to help,” said Chen. “Those students’ lives were not easy.”
But many students hadn’t gotten their money back.
Beneath their fury was growing desperation. Every lever of redress they had tried failed them. They had appealed for help to forces they thought they could believe in – society, the government – but no help came.
‘The world is full of good people’
There was, however, one guy, who did offer help. He called himself Kalen.
Kalen had worked in a phone factory himself, 13 years earlier, polishing cheap landline phones for a Chinese brand at a factory in Shenzhen. Back then, he didn’t realize he was being underpaid until he wandered into the office of a local labor rights group one day and learned that he wasn’t earning the legal minimum wage.
That knowledge electrified him. He devoured books about labor rights in the group’s reading room as he prepared his case. Two months later, he won 3,000 yuan in back pay through a local arbitration panel.
Kalen wondered how many other workers out there were like him, ignorant of their rights. He quit his factory job and dedicated himself to teaching workers how to use China’s laws to protect themselves.
Kalen brought his evidence-based approach to China Labor Watch, a group many of the students had never heard of before. He told them about the group’s past work with Apple suppliers and taught them how to calculate what they were owed. He admonished them to be honest as he gathered details about working hours and pay from over 200 workers.
“Seek truth from facts,” he wrote them on QQ.
In September, China Labor Watch asked Apple to intervene. The company sent a local team to investigate, reporting that 2,501 students had received back wages.
But many said they still hadn’t been fully paid.
When Kalen asked for a volunteer to write a letter to Apple, Yu was torn: Could she get kicked out of school for speaking out?
“It was so hard for me to make this money,” she said. “As long as there was a little bit of hope left I wanted to try.” She stayed up past midnight writing down everything that had happened.
On Sept. 28, Li emailed Yu’s letter to Apple.
Five days later, Apple wrote back: It had done further investigation and would ensure workers got paid for their day of training and extra work during meal breaks.
“Jabil invested hundreds of hours of staff time to contact approximately 17,000 employees,” Eric Austermann, Jabil’s vice-president of social and environmental responsibility wrote in an email to AP. “Although often lacking an email address, phone number, or other standard contact information, Jabil located all but about 5 percent of these employees, all of whom have been paid in full.”
The workers received over 2.7 million yuan ($426,000, at today’s rates), according to Jabil Green Point and an October 2017 email from Apple to China Labor Watch.
Apple declined to the comment on the case.
The students’ payments came in a few hundred or thousand yuan at a time. This was money for school, for food, a way to stay out of debt. By the end of October, Yu had gotten back everything she was owed.
She was impressed. She amended the letter she had written for Kalen, turning it into a testimonial and a statement of personal intent. China Labor Watch posted it on its website.
“Due to this experience, I am confident that the world is full of good people, people who make selfless contributions,” Yu wrote. “I wish to join a public interest organization. I wish to help others.”
But China was changing. Hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists had been swept up in a crackdown against perceived threats to the ruling Communist Party. Those with foreign ties, like China Labor Watch, were viewed with particular suspicion.
Yu had yet to grasp the perils of her growing idealism.
It could have been me
After Chinese New Year, Yu moved to Shanghai, a city she had only seen in pictures, to take a job at an interior design company. In March 2017, five months after she’d received her back pay from the factory, Yu reconnected with Kalen on WeChat.
Kalen told her China Labor Watch might need people to work undercover.
China Labor Watch was closing in on factories that made Ivanka Trump merchandise, including Ganzhou Huajian International Shoe City Co.
But the thought of returning to the grind of factory life was more than she could stomach.
“I needed to push myself forward,” she said. She wanted to learn English, dress better, lose weight.
China Labor Watch ultimately sent two men to work undercover. The group obtained a video of a manager berating a worker for apparently arranging shoes in the wrong order.
“If I see them f—ing messed up again,” the manager yells, “I’ll beat you right here.” Another worker was left with blood dripping from his head after a manager hit him with the sharp end of a high heeled shoe, according to three eyewitnesses who spoke to the AP.
The Huajian Group, which runs the factory in Ganzhou, denied all the allegations as “completely not true to the facts, taken out of context, exaggerated.” In April, China Labor Watch laid out its initial findings in a letter to Ivanka Trump at the White House.
She did not respond.
Over the years, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Gap Inc., Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other companies took China Labor Watch seriously enough to respond to criticisms or meet Li in person, according to emails and meeting notes reviewed by AP. Walt Disney Co. severed its relationship with at least one supplier after China Labor Watch exposed poor working conditions.
“We did an investigation on Apple because Apple is a big American company,” Li said. “If Apple changes, the other companies will follow. Now Ivanka is the most famous person among all these companies. If she can change, the other companies will too.”
But that plan backfired.
At the end of May, three China Labor Watch investigators were arrested, accused of illegally using secret cameras and listening devices.
One of them was investigator Hua Haifeng. Police had warned Hua to drop the Huajian investigation, but he pushed ahead anyway, Li said.
A wiry man not easily moved to alarm, Hua seemed to accept fear as the cost of his decision to live his life as an expression of his values.
In more than a decade working on labor rights in China, Hua had helped thousands of workers get back money they were owed, all the while half-wondering when he’d be forced to stop.
Now that he had, Hua, 36, was cut off from his wife and two young children.
Inside the Ganzhou City Detention Center, Hua shared a toothbrush with strangers. Locked in a cell so crowded there weren’t enough wooden boards to sleep on, Hua stretched out at night on a concrete floor next to a bucket that served as the toilet for around 20 men. The men added water and soap, hoping the bubbles might somehow take the stench out of human waste. It didn’t work.
It was the first time in China Labor Watch’s 17-year history that its investigators had been arrested. Police raided the group’s Shenzhen office and carried away computers and documents, Li said.
From his office in New York, Li worked frantically to get the men out of jail. He was convinced the shift in fortune was due to the target of their inquiry: a brand owned by the daughter of the U.S. president. But he had no proof.
Ivanka Trump – and her brand – said nothing about the arrests.
Where is Kalen?
Days after the arrest, Yu Chunyan took a new job at a design company in Shanghai, but something lingered from her experience at the Green Point factory. “I’d prefer work that can help more people,” she said.
She got a friend request from China Labor Watch’s Li Qiang. She messaged Kalen to check Li out.
Kalen never replied. She wondered what had happened to him.
On June 5, the U.S. State Department called for the immediate release of the three China Labor Watch investigators.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded that other nations “have no right to interfere with our judicial sovereignty.” State-owned media reported that the trio had tried to steal trade secrets and sell them overseas.
Li Qiang wrote to Ivanka Trump at the White House on June 6, describing what he called “extreme working conditions” in her supply chain. “Your words and deeds can make a difference in these workers’ lives,” he wrote.
He got no reply.
Her brand has called its supply chain integrity “a top priority,” but also maintains that its suppliers are overseen by licensees – companies it contracts with to make tons of Ivanka Trump handbags, shoes and clothes.
The brand said its shoes had not been produced at the Huajian factory since March, though China Labor Watch obtained an April production schedule for nearly 1,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump shoes due in May.
In late June, after 30 days in jail, the three China Labor Watch investigators were released on bail. Hua carried his son in his arms as he walked out of a police station in Ganzhou.
Hua declined to be interviewed for this story. His lawyer said police ordered him not to speak with the media. His bail conditions dictated that he must check in weekly with police and cannot travel without permission. That, plus the cloud of criminal suspicion that clung to him in his small hometown, made it hard to get a job.
In July, Hua asked police for permission to take a family vacation in the Wudang mountains, three hours away. After articles came out in the foreign press quoting Hua, half a dozen plainclothes policemen appeared at a restaurant where Hua was having dinner with his family and tapped him on the shoulder. The next morning they escorted him home, leaving his wife, Deng Guilian, to wander through Taoist temples alone with the kids.
With her husband out of work, Deng got a job selling drinks and snacks at a local karaoke parlor from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. After her shift, she heads to a nearby dormitory where she and a female co-worker share a bed with a Snoopy headboard.
She gets three days off a month to see her four-year-old son, Bo Bo, and seven-year-old daughter, Chen Chen.
“They seem accustomed to not having their mom,” Deng said, flashing an uneasy smile.
Each Monday morning after dropping his kids at school, Hua makes the short drive past weedy lots and a factory spewing thick white smoke to check in with the local police in Nanzhang County.
At first they lectured him: Change careers. Don’t speak out. Live a normal life. Now, he usually just signs his name, his wife said, but it is clear that missteps can quickly draw the wrath of local authorities.
Police in Nanzhang County, Ganzhou city and Jiangxi province did not respond to requests for comment.
In October, Li Qiang again wrote to Ivanka Trump and her brand.
He said he got no response.
Ivanka Trump’s actions show “that she does not care about these workers who are making her products, and is only concerned with making profits,” Li said in an email. “As a public figure, she has the ability and resources to not only work on labor conditions at her own brand’s factories, but also to help improve labor conditions of the global supply chain as a whole. However, she did not use her influence to do these things.”
An ordinary person
Shortly after 6 p.m. on an October evening, Yu Chunyan left her office and walked through Shanghai’s former French Concession, the wealthy heart of China’s most prosperous city. She passed rows of thick plane trees, black against a darkening sky, and stepped into a discreet tea house.
Yu slid open the wooden door of a private room and peeked inside with a wide, nervous smile at the AP journalists she had agreed to meet. A chunky, colorless sweater hung off her body and her stocking feet poked out of white sandals despite the cold.
Yu slipped off her shoes and took a seat at the sunken table, doing her best to avoid the list of fancy teas glowing from a scrollable iPad menu. She began to talk about Kalen, and pulled out her phone to flip to their exchanges on WeChat.
There, in his tiny profile photo, was a familiar face.
“Do you know him?” she asked, surprised.
AP had been writing about him for months.
Kalen was Hua Haifeng.
Yu had no idea that her Kalen was the same Hua Haifeng who had been arrested while investigating Ivanka Trump suppliers. She listened, still and silent, to news of interrogations and surveillance, his son’s sudden nightmares, the jail and the bucket of urine.
Her eyes welled. Elegant cakes lay untouched in front of her.
An hour later, she sent a WeChat message to Kalen.
“Do you have to take risks to work in your industry?” she asked.
Risks depend on politics, he wrote her, and the conditions of the country you live in. “From the beginning, I expected something like this could happen,” he told her. “So it’s not about bad luck. It was going to happen sooner or later.”
“If you had another chance, would you do the same thing?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered. Hua told Yu that he had to live a life that embodied his values. He tried to be encouraging. “I am not saying that everyone has to pay that high a price.”
But Yu had a sense that Hua had run up against forces neither of them could fully grasp, much less defeat. In her mind, she was recalibrating the risks of idealism.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Yu said.
In late November, she left Shanghai to go back and live with her parents.
“I want to be an ordinary person,” she said. “I don’t want to get involved with controversial things.”