US presidential candidate Donald Trump has pledged to bring long lost American manufacturing jobs back from China. But he may be too late — even for products that bear his family name.
A Chinese company that makes shoes for his daughter’s fashion line is moving production to Africa, where labour is much cheaper.
The billionaire tycoon has frequently accused China of stealing US jobs through unfair trade practices and currency manipulation, while simultaneously relying on the country to make Trump-branded goods.
But the kind of work that goes into making such products may never return to America, the president of major footwear producer Huajian Group told AFP.
“Some manufacturers can’t even survive in China anymore,” Zhang Huarong said, speaking in his office in the southern factory hub of Dongguan.
His company has made about 100,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump-branded shoes over the years, according to spokesman Liu Shiyuan.
In August it filled an order for 20,000 — just weeks after Trump accepted the Republican nomination, with a speech vowing to bring jobs back to the US.
It is a goal Trump plans to accomplish by imposing a 45 percent tariff on Chinese-made goods, but his focus could be misplaced: Zhang has become one of a growing number of Chinese manufacturers expanding to Africa and Southeast Asia in search of lower production costs.
In 2012, Zhang opened his first factory in Ethiopia. Four years later, he is building a billion-dollar facility there. Its production lines are already humming.
“My goal is to create 30,000 jobs in Ethiopia by 2020, with exports reaching $1 billion to $1.5 billion,” he said.
Low-wage, low-skilled manufacturing jobs like those Zhang is sending to Africa are “being priced out of the Chinese market, which still pays wages far beneath even minimum wage jobs in the United States,” said Christopher Balding, professor of economics at Peking University HSBC Business School.
The Trump campaign did not respond to questions from AFP, while Ivanka Trump’s company “declined” to comment.
US ‘worse at making shoes’
Huajian’s shoes are a fraction of the more than 1,200 shipments of Trump-branded products that have flowed into the US from China and Hong Kong over the last decade, according to an examination of US import data by anti-Trump political action committee Our Principles PAC.
Trump has defended his family’s decision to license its name to companies that make the goods — from shoes to ties to dress shirts — in China as smart business, while slamming other US firms such as Ford and Nabisco for offshoring.
Manufacturing of the products is handled by third parties. US-based Marc Fisher Footwear, which makes Ivanka Trump branded shoes, did not respond to requests for comment.
“It’s very, very hard to have anything in apparel made in this country,” Trump said in a 2015 interview with CNN.
Zhang agrees: “Americans say ‘a lot of shoes are being made in China‘. But it’s because the US is worse at making shoes.”
US companies may bring back some production that can be easily automated, he said, but the labourious handwork required to make fashionable women’s shoes will always go to the lowest bidder.
Even his factory has had to move up the value chain over the years, expanding into design work, with dozens of staff — mostly middle-aged men — now designing pumps, thigh-high boots, and kitten heels for overseas customers.
The designs for Ivanka Trump’s shoes are done by another company, Huajian spokesman Liu said, adding that she personally approves them.
A slowing economy
At the Dongguan factory, which employs some 15,000 people, it takes as many as 200 workers to move a single pair of shoes from the concept stage to the loading dock.
On lunch break at the plant, Cao Jian said he makes 3,200 yuan ($480) a month heeling shoes -– about average for the area.
The 20-year-old from southern Guangxi region said he was satisfied with this wage, but many workers in the world’s second largest economy are demanding more.
Labour actions have exploded across China in recent years, up almost 19 percent year-on-year to 1,867 strikes in the first eight months of 2016, according to the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.
Factory owners have found themselves squeezed between demand for higher wages and falling growth, as China‘s economy expanded at its slowest rate in a quarter century last year and has continued to slow.
Now, for the price of one Chinese worker, Huajian can hire five Ethiopians, Zhang told AFP.
That is why the company is building a “light industrial city” shaped like a woman’s shoe in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, he said.
The sprawling campus will feature factories, dorms, a hotel and a hospital, all bounded by a replica of the Great Wall.
The kind of manufacturing work he plans to do there is “too low-value” for Americans, he said.
“It’s a good thing that (Trump) is focused on American employment,” he said.
“But the question is, does he really want to make shoes?”