Li Qiang didn’t expect the McDonald’s executives would fly to New York to see him.
It was 2001, and the 29-year-old political refugee from China had just released his first report for China Labor Watch, the labor rights organization he founded. The report was on Merton, a company whose factory in Dongguan, China, produced toys for McDonald’s, Hasbro, and Disney. It followed a two-year investigation that Li, a former Merton factory worker himself, had orchestrated with his contacts there.
With detailed evidence, it found that employees were required to work for 120 consecutive days before getting one day off; that up to 20 of them were crammed into one dormitory room; and that the average salary, after required deductions, was just 13 cents per hour. Workers also complained of strong chemical smells and hands frequently burned by paint thinner. Because of an abnormal color in their urine, many told Li’s team they were “sure they will have some kind of chronic disease.”
Li put the report online but did not publicize it much, so he was surprised when Joan Kroc, the third wife of McDonald’s mogul Ray Kroc, read it, and insisted the company talk to him.
“I thought, McDonald’s is such a huge company. Why are they coming to meet with me?” Li recalled recently.
Li retold the story seated at his desk, among boxes and stacks of office supplies, in his small Manhattan office near Penn Station. Two calendars hung on the wall, neither of them reflecting the current month, and a lottery ticket was taped to a monitor. Now 48 years old, Li’s thick hair is greying and, between his mild manner and square glasses, it can be difficult to see the youthful fervor that led him to his life’s work.
The McDonald’s executives, it turned out, wanted Li’s advice on how to improve working conditions at Merton’s factory, and the experience cemented Li’s approach to labor activism in China.
In the years since, his team has conducted hundreds of secret investigations focused on household brands. Although Li doesn’t speak much English and has only one employee, China Labor Watch has become a thorn in the side of multinational corporations by exposing the poor working conditions and often illegal labor practices inside the Chinese factories where they source products. Because of his reports, many global companies have issued apologies, raised salaries, and even fired their Chinese suppliers.
Executives from Apple, Samsung, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and more have all made the trek to his unassuming office over the years, pulling up chairs to the table in the room’s center that serves as a makeshift conference space.
“Sometimes we were friends, sometimes we were adversaries,” said Alan Hassenfeld, the former chief executive officer of Hasbro. “I respect him greatly,” Hasselfeld added, calling him “a crusader.”
Li called Hassenfeld first to discuss the Merton report, a lengthy conversation that led to years of collaboration in improving labor standards for the toy industry. “Our first conversation wasn’t great,” Hassenfeld recalls. Although there were times when Li’s reports exaggerated, Hassenfeld said, the information usually checked out.
Sonya Durkin-Jones, who worked on the Nike Corporate Social Responsibility team from 2005 to 2014, said that Li’s work has “helped tens of thousands of workers,” making him “one of the most important touchstones on worker rights in China.”
The litany of grievances China Labor Watch has uncovered over the years include fatal accidents, suicides, underage workers, sexual harassment, squalid living arrangements, and blatant defiance of Chinese labor laws. With Covid-19 still raging, he says, worker protections have again suffered.
Conditions inside Chinese factories have improved considerably since Li was a worker. Most major companies now tout their “Supplier Codes of Conduct,” work and safety standards for supplier factories that are monitored by independent auditors. But despite enormous resources, the audits often fail to catch what Li — operating on the other side of the world with an annual budget of about $300,000 — does.
In 2009, for instance, a factory that supplied paper goods to Disney had just passed a third-party audit when an exhausted 17-year-old worker died because his hand, and then his body, got sucked into a paper crushing machine. China Labor Watch’s report uncovered that the boy, who had been hired when he was 15, was one of many underage workers at the factory and that some were as young as 13. In 2014, just a week after a Samsung audit found no evidence of underage workers in its global supply chain, China Labor Watch uncovered child workers in a factory in southern China — school girls who had been trained to avoid the facility’s facial recognition system. The company suspended the factory.
And over the years, Apple, whose suppliers employ over 1 million Chinese workers, has increased pay and social benefits and altered labor practices, often after violations were disclosed in the organization’s reports — 15 of which have focused on Apple alone.
Relying mostly on volunteers and his vast, informal network in China, Li orchestrates his investigations by having actual factory workers document their conditions, and he is exceptionally good at getting the media’s attention. (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and CNN have relied on his tips.) Since company audits are confidential, the reports he publishes online are one of the few public sources of information about what goes on inside the world’s largest manufacturing hub.
THE SQUEAKY WHEEL
“Are you all blind? Come here! These two blind sons of bitch.”
The video is shaky, but in between the wire racks holding half-formed products, you can see the manager yelling. He’s in a white, button-down shirt, while most of the workers are in bright blue polos.
“If I see them f***ing messed up again, I’ll beat you up right here.”
It was spring in 2017, and China Labor Watch had sent three investigators into a factory that supplied leather shoes to a number of brands, including Ivanka Trump, Nine West, and Guess. In addition to the verbal threats, they uncovered physical abuse (one worker had been struck by a manager with the sharp end of a high-heeled shoe), discriminatory language against women and a host of other labor violations, including 15-hour work days, and workers’ salaries based on production rate, not their time.
In another undercover video, workers are told to sign fake timesheets on other employees’ behalf to skirt work limits and overtime pay. “Just sign a name here. Or two names. With different handwriting,” a woman says.
As with many factories, if a worker wanted to quit or leave, they needed to get their supervisor’s permission or they wouldn’t get their salary for the last month. This arrangement, Li says, means that workers who are originally outraged become stuck.
“Day by day, they got used to the condition and became numb to their situations,” Li said, “and indifferent to the injustice.”
Li said the conditions inside the shoe factory were the worst he’s seen recently. While he’s drawn attention to the sports, toy, and electronics industries over the years, resulting in tangible improvements, leather-shoe factories have been overlooked.
“That is probably why the working condition is so bad inside,” Li said.
Li was ready to change that. But before he published his report, he did what he frequently does: He wrote to the brands involved, including Ivanka Trump, outlining the allegations. He never received a response, but before he could publish his report, all three of his investigators were arrested.
Though the threat is always there, in almost two decades of operations, China Labor Watch investigators had never before been detained. Li believes his decision to target Trump, just after her father entered the White House, crossed a line with the Chinese government.
Desperate to secure the mens’ release, Li wrote to Trump again and included the videos.
“China Labor Watch expects you, as an assistant to the president and an advocate for women’s rights, to urge your brand’s supplier factories to improve their conditions,” he wrote.
Trump never responded. Li turned to his contacts at the Chinese consulate in New York City. They advised him on how to appeal to the Chinese government, and on June 27, a month after the men had been arrested for unlawful use of devices for eavesdropping or secret photographing, all three were released pending trial, and they remain on bail. Li has since helped one of them resettle in the U.S. with his family.
Given the risks involved, Li decided not to publish a report on the shoe factory. But he also didn’t need to; the factory started making changes internally, and the Associated Press wrote a detailed story entitled, “Making Ivanka Trump Shoes: Long hours, low pay and abuse.”
While most companies initially deny his allegations, he relies on the media to pressure them to act.
In 2018, for example, he alerted Amazon founder Jeff Bezos of the illegal, excessive use of temporary workers, called dispatch workers, in China, at a Foxconn factory that makes Amazon gadgets. An Amazon director issued a pro-forma response, pointing to the company’s independent audits and its Supplier Code of Conduct.
Unsatisfied, Li decided he would have to get Amazon’s attention another way.
He gave exclusive access to The Guardian, which sent a reporter to China to corroborate the findings. When the story was published by the British newspaper in June 2018, media outlets around the world covered it.
Amazon issued a statement in response, acknowledging the violation of dispatch worker quotas and inadequate overtime compensation at the Hengyang factory. Many workers were teenagers hired to assemble Amazon Alexa devices, and under pressure to meet production quotas. The company said it had already conducted an audit in March, uncovered the problems, and requested a “corrective action plan” from Foxconn, the contract manufacturer that ran the facility.
But six months later, Li heard that nothing had changed at the factory. He sent another investigator in and published a subsequent report in August 2019.
“Foxconn didn’t think that I would release a report the second time,” he said, proudly.
The 2019 report caused an even bigger splash. In addition to the ongoing violations of dispatch worker limits, it alleged that student interns as young as 16 were being hired to work overtime — Amazon’s Supplier Code of Conduct doesn’t allow workers under 18 to work overtime.
“We urgently investigated these allegations, initiated weekly reviews of this issue, and addressed this with Foxconn at the most senior level,” an Amazon spokesperson told The Wire.
Li said the conditions have now improved, and is unapologetic about the tactics he uses to affect change. Some companies and other labor rights groups hint off the record about Li’s lone-wolf strategy, contrasting it with more “collaborative” methods.
But Li says he’s not trying to be hostile and that, really, he wants to help the companies as well as other organizations.
“We’ve realized that if we don’t criticize them,” he said, “they don’t do anything.”
‘A MOUSEHOLE IN THE SYSTEM’
While Li is more than willing to name and shame Western companies, he tows a more diplomatic line when it comes to China, always operating just inside the parameters of what the Chinese government will tolerate. According to his supporters, this approach sets him apart from other Chinese labor activists, and — crucially — it allows him to stay operational.
“He has always operated in an area close to the margin of what is acceptable in Chinese politics,” said William Hurst, a political science professor at Northwestern University and China Labor Watch board member.
In a quirk of communist China, labor unions are technically legal, but workers must consult their company’s management before forming a trade union, and it must be affiliated with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, most workers do not trust unions to represent their concerns.
Li used to train workers on their rights, conduct investigations in Chinese-owned factories, and advocate for the Chinese government to allow independent unions, but has reined in those efforts now that the Chinese government, under Xi Jinping, has taken a harsher stance against labor activists, dissidents and non governmental organizations.
In 2014, a major strike took place in the city of Dongguan, at the Yue Yuen shoe factory, one of Nike’s manufacturing partners. Chinese authorities clamped down in the months to follow, and arrested about 250 lawyers and activists the following year. Li used to visit China regularly, and even set up an office in Shenzhen. But his last visit to China was in 2015, when he was tipped off by a police officer that he may be arrested if he returned.
Under Xi, labor rights activists have routinely faced harassment and arrest, especially after a strike at Jasic Technology, a Chinese welding equipment company, in July 2018.
“The top levels of the Chinese government are obsessed with maintaining stability,” Aaron Halegua, a lawyer in New York City who has studied Chinese labor laws, said. “There is always a fear of workers or labor rights groups joining together or organizing, because demands over workplace rights can quickly transform into political demands. They do not want another Tiananmen.”
Realistic about his limitations, Li has found “a mousehole in the system,” according to Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University scholar and longtime donor. By turning a blind eye to organizing as well as to factories that make products for Chinese companies, Li focuses blame almost exclusively on the multinational corporations. “It’s a leverage of western consumer goodwill,” Nathan said.
But in addition to this strategy feeling unfair to some corporations, other activists say there is a limit to what it really accomplishes. Tackling China’s labor issues one factory at a time, after all, doesn’t do much for the vast majority of the millions of workers toiling throughout the country.
“Corporate social responsibility is pretty useless. It’s all PR,” Anita Chan, an expert on labor issues and a visiting fellow at Australian National University, Canberra, said. She met Li shortly after he arrived in New York and even helped him set up his first bank account.
“It’s not because Li’s work is not good,” she added, “but it’s not useful in turning around the world’s global capital.”
Li used to have grander ambitions. A C-SPAN video from 2000, when Li first came to the United States, shows the fiery idealism that led him to this work.
In it, he is a young 28-year-old playing a minor role in a press conference organized by Frank Wolf, then a Republican lawmaker from Virginia, to oppose granting China Permanent Normal Trade Relations, an official designation to engage in free trade with another country. Wolf ultimately lost on the issue, a pivotal moment in U.S.-China relations that opened the floodgates for multinationals to set up the supply chains that now define so much of American consumerism.
Li’s face barely peeks out above the dozen microphones as he shares, through a translator, what his life was like when he was working in Chinese factories.
He holds up a box showing a Farberware electric can opener, saying he worked on a team of 20 workers that produced 1,400 units daily. They were forced to stand while working 13 hours a day for less than $2.
“They are treating Chinese workers like machines. They are treating us like slaves,” he said through a translator. “I am against America giving China [normal trade status] because the China worker has no right to organize independent unions. You do not trade under such conditions.”
Li spoke for less than three minutes, but Gary Bauer, who represented the conservative advocacy group Family Research Council and is now the chairman of American Values, remembers the impassioned statement even after all these years. At the time, Bauer said, people were making excuses for China’s labor violations and arguing that normalized trade would change China, but Li’s account made “it impossible for Americans to say later, ‘We had no idea.’”
Sweatshop labor and global trade negotiations were front-page news, but for Li, it was personal. When he was 11, his father died, plunging Li’s family into poverty. His mother was forced to work long hours at a construction company to keep them afloat.
As a student, he flirted with worker rights protests in his hometown of Zigong in Sichuan province, but stopped after police showed up at his house and alerted his relatives to his activities. He laid low for a few years, achieving some financial stability by selling construction materials, but everything changed in 1997 when, at the age of 25, he witnessed a recently laid off worker light himself on fire outside the local government office.
“With a lighter in his hand, he poured gasoline around his body and up the steps of the municipal building. I can never forget his desperate face,” Li testified to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2005. “Although his immolation was stopped by the police, this incident greatly affected me. I gave up my business and devoted myself to defending workers’ rights.”
Li became a public advocate for the man and his family, and eventually went on to collaborate with Human Rights in China and China Labour Bulletin. For three years, he secured work at factories and, once inside, guided workers on how to advocate for greater rights.
But as word of his activism spread, Li feared being arrested, and the labor rights groups put him in touch with the AFL-CIO and the U.S. State Department. In 2000, he had a fake passport made and fled for Thailand in order to seek political asylum in the U.S.
Just 11 months after the PNTR press conference, Li received his first grant from the National Labor Committee (now the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights), and China Labor Watch was born. Over the years, his organization has also received grants from nonprofits, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, that rely heavily on U.S. government funding.
Li conducts 20 to 30 investigations a year, each of which costs about $5,000, but only a fraction become reports. While similar groups continue to back him today, he has stopped publicizing donors to protect them from repercussions.
THE POWER OF ONE
Li, who is now settled in New Jersey with his wife and two children, acknowledges the limits of his one-factory-at-a-time focus. The biggest challenge Chinese workers face today, he says, is their inability to organize into independent labor unions.
But, overall, his approach has worked. Factory conditions in China are better today than when Li was a worker. He remembers routine exposure to harmful chemicals without adequate protection, and in one position, he had to reach into a molding machine and quickly grab a product before it stamped down on the next one.
Thanks in part to China Labor Watch, companies like Apple, Target, Nike and Gap have increased oversight and transparency over their supply chains, and they are sensitive to news about violations in supplier factories.
Alice Bordaçarre, who heads women’s rights campaigns for ActionAid, a French aid organization that has worked with Li since 2009, said Li’s effectiveness and unique access is unlike anything else in the China labor sphere.
“If you want to work on China, you cannot rely on trade unions,” she said. “The work that CLW does is so important for us because otherwise we don’t have any information about what the situation is in factories,” she said.
And while the organization has had to temper its work amid the recent political restrictions, that may not always be the case.
“To do anything in China or any authoritarian country, it’s always necessary to be adaptable,” Hurst said, noting Li’s ability to stay operational. “Conditions change, boundaries move.”
Until they do, Li takes comfort from the fact that word about China Labor Watch has spread around factory floors, offering workers a resource for help even when the cases don’t end up on the front pages.
When one worker didn’t receive his wages and reached out to China Labor Watch, for instance, Li told him to tell the company he had contacted the organization.
“They became a bit afraid when they heard our name,” Li said, smiling. “They just paid him and told him not to contact us again.”
Ambreen Ali is a writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, Congressional Quarterly, Roll Call, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and numerous other publications. @ambreenali