31/05/2017 8:29 PM AEST | Updated 31/05/2017 10:20 PM AEST

Activists Investigating Ivanka Trump's Shoe Factories Disappear

Two undercover activists investigating alleged human rights abuses at a Chinese factory that makes Ivanka Trump shoes have disappeared and a third has been detained by police.

The men were investigating a factory in southern Guangdong province on behalf of New York-based rights group China Labor Watch, according to executive director Li Qiang, who lost touch with them over the weekend.

They were to publish a report next month alleging low pay, excessive overtime and possible misuse of student labour for the group, which has been exposing poor working conditions at suppliers to some of the world’s best-known companies for nearly two decades.

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A production line at the Huajian shoe factory, where around 100,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump-branded shoes have been made 

Li said his work has never before attracted this level of scrutiny from China’s state security apparatus, prompting fears about the company’s ties to the US president’s family.

The arrest and disappearances come amid a crackdown on perceived threats to the stability of China’s ruling Communist Party, particularly from sources with foreign ties such as China Labor Watch. Faced with rising labour unrest and a slowing economy, Beijing has taken a stern approach to activism in southern China’s manufacturing belt and to human rights advocates generally, sparking a wave of critical reports about disappearances, public confessions, forced repatriation and torture in custody.

“Ivanka’s brand should immediately cease its work with this supplier, and the Trump administration should reverse its current course and confront China on its human rights abuses,” Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said.

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Workers on a production line at the shoe factory in south China's Guangdong province 

Ivanka Trump must decide, she added, “whether she can ignore the Chinese government’s apparent attempt to silence an investigation into those worker abuses.”

Ivanka Trump’s lifestyle brand imports most of its merchandise from China, where she and her father both have extensive trademark portfolios.

“The eagerness of members of the family to do business in China while airbrushing very troubling human rights and labour rights records of the country is troubling,” said Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia director for Amnesty International.

Amnesty International called for the release of Hua Haifeng on Wednesday, as well as his two colleagues, who are feared to have been detained.

White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks referred questions to Ivanka Trump’s brand. The Ivanka Trump brand declined to comment.

Abigail Klem, who took over day-to-day management when the first daughter became a White House presidential adviser, has said the brand requires licensees and their manufacturers to “comply with all applicable laws and to maintain acceptable working conditions.”

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Ivanka Trump shoes for sale in New York 

China tightened control over foreign NGOs starting this year by requiring them to register with state security. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press briefing on Wednesday that she was not aware of the arrest and disappearances. She said China welcomed international NGOs to carry out research, but added, “we also hope that NGOs can also observe Chinese laws and regulations and don’t engage in any illegal actions or behaviour.”

Hua Haifeng was accused of illegal surveillance, according to his wife, Deng Guilian, who said the police called her on Tuesday afternoon. Deng said the caller told her she didn’t need to know the details, only that she would not be able to see, speak with or receive money from her husband, the family’s breadwinner.

Li said China Labor Watch asked police about the Deng and the two other investigators, Li Zhao and Su Heng, on Monday but received no reply. Li added that a friend had tried to file a missing person report on Li Zhao in Jiangxi province, but was told he had to do so in the man’s hometown.

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Ivanka Trump’s lifestyle brand imports most of its merchandise from China, where she and her father both have extensive trademark portfolios

The men were investigating Huajian Group factories in the southern Chinese cities of Ganzhou and Dongguan. Su Heng had been working undercover at the Ganzhou factory since April, Li said.

In January, Liu Shiyuan, then spokesman for the Huajian Group, told AP the company makes 10,000 to 20,000 pairs of shoes a year for Ivanka Trump’s brand — a fraction of the 20 million pairs the company produces a year.

Li said investigators had seen Ivanka Trump-brand merchandise, as well as production orders for Ivanka Trump, Marc Fisher, Nine West and Easy Spirit.

“We were unaware of the allegations and will look into them immediately,” a spokeswoman for Marc Fisher, which manufactures Ivanka Trump, Easy Spirit and its own branded shoes, said in an email Tuesday. Nine West did not respond to requests for comment.

Li Zhao and Hua Haifeng were blocked from leaving mainland China for Hong Kong in April and May — something that had never happened to his colleagues before, Li said. Hua Haifeng was stopped at the border May 25 and later questioned by police, Li said. During their final phone conversation on Saturday, Hua told Li that police had asked him to stop investigating the Huajian factory — another turn of events that Li said was unprecedented.

Li said the men had documented excessive overtime, with working days sometimes stretching longer than 18 hours, and a base salary below minimum wage. They were working to confirm evidence suggesting that student interns — some of whom allegedly quit in protest — were putting in excessive hours on work unrelated to their field of study, in violation of Chinese law, Li said.

 “My son suddenly burst into tears. He said he missed Papa,” Hua’s wife Deng told the Associated Press. “I said Papa would come home soon and buy you toys.”

She said the child looked at her and answered: “Papa was taken away by a monster.”