- Krithika Varagurjournalist based in Indonesia. Her latest piece is “Revealed: reality of life working in an Ivanka Trump clothing factory.”
A new investigation by The Guardian has revealed workplace abuse, grueling production targets and deplorably low pay at an Indonesian factory that makes clothing for Ivanka Trump’s clothing label. Many of the female workers at the factory in West Java say the pay is so low, they live in constant debt and can’t afford to live with their own children. In June, Democracy Now! spoke with the journalist who broke the story, Krithika Varagur, when she joined us from Indonesia to describe what she uncovered.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. A new investigation by The Guardian has revealed workplace abuse, grueling production targets and deplorably low pay at an Indonesian factory that makes clothing for Ivanka Trump’s label. Many of the female workers at the factory in West Java say the pay is so low, they live in constant debt and can’t afford to live with their own children. This comes as three Chinese activists with the group China Labor Watch continue to be imprisoned after they were arrested while investigating labor conditions at a factory manufacturing Ivanka Trump brand shoes.
We go right now to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, where we’re joined by the journalist who broke the story, Krithika Varagur.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Krithika. Can you tell us what you found?
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: So, I went to the factory in West Java, about three hours from Jakarta, that makes clothes for G-III Apparel Group, which is this global conglomerate that makes clothes for a bunch of high-profile brands, including Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld and Ivanka Trump. What I found there was fairly typical of other Indonesian garment factories, which is to say there were quite a few labor violations, according to the workers that I spoke with, including consistent unpaid overtime or poorly compensated overtime, an extremely low minimum wage—still legal, I want to emphasize that, but quite low for Indonesia and quite low for Asia—and reports of verbal abuse from company management.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the people you met there, particularly the young women, and what they had to say about their work conditions.
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: Yeah. So this is a pretty large factory, almost 3,000 people, and the vast majority of people who work there are women. And often they are the breadwinners for their whole family. The fact about this minimum wage and the reason this town has become quite attractive to garment factories is that this minimum wage is incredibly low even for Indonesia. It’s about $173 a month. And this means that if you’re from out of town, which is to say, if your parents don’t have a house here that you can stay in, you can’t afford—you basically can’t afford to have your children live with you. According to many labor activists, this is not a living wage. One prominent activist that I quoted called it a “poverty wage.” And the working moms that I met, including the one that was prominently featured in my piece, simply can’t afford to have their kids live with them. They live in a different town with their grandparents and see their parents about once a month.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about this area being—where this factory is, being particularly low wages even for Indonesia. What? Like you said, $160 a month, which would be what? Forty dollars a week, which would be well under a dollar an hour, because also you describe people saying they’re forced to work overtime and not be compensated.
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: Right. This wage is quite low for Indonesia. In a neighboring town, for example, Purwakarta in West Java, the minimum wage is over 3 million rupiah, whereas here it’s only 2.3. When I spoke to the manpower ministry of this district, they were quite insistent that this wage was important to keep them competitive in the global garment market. But, of course, when you look at it from the global perspective, this wage is about 40 percent lower than what the equivalent factory workers are making in China. And it was reported earlier this month in The New York Times that the G-III Apparel Group was looking to move to cheaper labor, even cheaper than China, and had been closing down some of its factories. So you see this downstream movement, chasing lower and lower wages, which I think this is a part of.
AMY GOODMAN: And that issue of China is particularly relevant when it comes to Ivanka brand—Ivanka Trump brand clothes. We just reported on the three investigators for China Labor Watch who went to a factory in China, which actually pays more than the factory you visited in Indonesia. They were investigating the conditions there, and they’ve all been arrested, which is unusual even for China right now.
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: Yeah, it’s certainly concerning. And I believe that the Ivanka Trump brand has distanced itself from that particular factory, because they don’t currently produce things there anymore. I would say it’s a disturbing development.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk to us about Alia, the young woman you met in the West Java factory.
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: Yeah. Without giving too much away, she’s been working all her life. She’s a mother to two children. And what I would emphasize is that she is not unique within the factory. She said there’s dozens of moms just like her whose main interactions with their kids are in photos on their phone that they store up when they visit them once a month.
And, you know, they’re doing honest work. They’re getting a legal wage. And this factory is not beyond the pale. It’s a very, you know, ordinary Indonesian factory. But the fact is, even working day after day, the money they make is simply not enough. And there’s just a great, great distance from the lives these women live, these working moms live, and the professional rhetoric of Ivanka Trump, who wrote a book on women in the workplace.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you actually share the sort of gist of the book, Ivanka Trump’s book, Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success, with this young woman, this factory worker at the West Java factory. What did she say about what Ivanka recommends when it comes to “rewriting the rules for success”?
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: I mean, she thought it was funny. She just started laughing. This work-life balance rhetoric is totally alien to women of her class and in their position. And they don’t balance their work and lives because they want to, but because they have to. And yeah, I mean, there’s just a huge gap between their lived experience and the rhetoric that’s being pushed in Ivanka Trump’s book. So, they thought it was pretty funny. She and many of them did know who she was, but they weren’t familiar with the intricacies of her brand and so forth.
AMY GOODMAN: So she can’t see her children but once a month, when she travels—makes enough money for the gasoline to go hours away to her family, who—where her children are being raised by their grandparents.
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: That’s correct.
AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about President Trump calling out Indonesia last March for having an unfavorable trade balance with the United States, saying that Indonesia was treating foreign—was cheating foreign importers. Can you explain how that fits into this picture?
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: Sure. Indonesia is one of the countries that Donald Trump singled out for having what he called an unfair trade balance with the United States. I believe as of last year it was a $13 billion surplus. And he promised to correct that, as it were, and return jobs and the import-export balance in America’s favor. So it’s ironic in that context, that having singled out Indonesia as one of these countries, his daughter’s clothing brand uses Indonesian labor.
AMY GOODMAN: And Donald Trump keeps on saying he will penalize companies that go to other countries, talking about bringing jobs back to America. Now, this company, Ivanka Trump’s brand, you don’t always know that it is the Ivanka Trump brand, is that right? The name is different, and they’ve even changed the Ivanka Trump brand name in some cases.
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: That’s correct. It’s been sort of plummeting in popularity in various metro areas in recent months, to the point where G-III, which is the apparel group that owns Ivanka Trump, has been discreetly relabeling her merchandise to a brand called Adrienne Vitadini, apparently without informing Ivanka Trump’s brand, in hopes of moving it off the shelves. I’m not sure what the effects of that have been, but I think it points to the fact that her merchandise is kind of getting tougher to move off the shelves.
AMY GOODMAN: Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. Did you talk to the workers at this factory? Were they aware of all the controversy around the Muslim ban one and two of the current president, President Trump, the father of Ivanka Trump, whose clothes are named after her, though she’s distanced herself while she is an adviser to her father in the White House?
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: Yeah, certainly some of them were aware of Donald Trump, and for obvious reasons. Since almost every worker in this factory is a Muslim, they were not fans of him. But this factory town, like many other factory towns in Indonesia, is a one-horse town. You either keep this job, or you work on the farm. So like one of the people quoted in my article said, they are not in a position to make employment decisions based on their principles. So, as much as they have personal problems with working—with indirectly supporting a family that has announced a Muslim ban, they can’t do much about it right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you gotten a response from the Ivanka Trump brand? The publisher of Ivanka Trump’s book, Adrian Zackheim, told ABC News in a statement, “The book highlights the author’s continuing commitment to inspire and empower women to define success on their own terms and to create the lives they want to live.” Have they responded directly to your piece and exposé about the conditions in this one plant in Indonesia that makes Ivanka Trump brand clothes?
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: No, not yet.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there anything else you’d like to add about what you found and how people in the plant feel? This is a nonunion plant?
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: There are two small unions represented, but they are quite a small fraction of the total factory population. So they’re less than 10 percent of the factory.
AMY GOODMAN: And are many of the factories in Indonesia—are there a number that are going to this Subang district of Indonesia, where the minimum wage, which, to say the least, is extremely minimal, is even lower than other parts of Indonesia?
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: Yeah, there are quite a few Korean apparel groups in this region, and there are, I think, over 300 companies in Subang as of this year. It’s become quite—it’s becoming a semi-prominent industrial zone within the last two decades, after spending a long time as an agrarian community.
And in terms of the factory as a whole, I would just say it is a very run-of-the-mill Indonesian garment factory. But, of course, the reason that it bears a second look is because of the connection to a very specific brand that is built on women in the workplace. So, I think it’s important to look at the supply chain of a brand that positions itself in that way.
AMY GOODMAN: Krithika Varagur, I want to thank you very much for being with us, journalist based in Indonesia. We will link to your pieces. The latest in The Atlantic is “Saudi Arabia Is Redefining Islam for the World’s Largest Muslim Nation.” And we’ll link to your piece in The Guardian, Ivanka Trump, “Revealed: reality of life working in an Ivanka Trump clothing factory.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.