China's state-controlled media on Wednesday accused three labor investigators of industrial espionage after they carried out an undercover probe of conditions at factories supplying the Ivanka Trump brand with shoes.
Hua Haifeng, Li Zhao and Su Heng were detained last week on suspicion of "illegal use of monitoring equipment" and are currently being held in the Ganzhou Detention Center in Jiangxi's Ganzhou city.
But they have now also been accused of "supplying relevant overseas organizations with industrial secrets" relating to production processes, hiring practices and pay and conditions, The Paper, which is back by the Shanghai municipal government, reported.
"Police found the three were carrying special eavesdropping equipment, including watches ... so they placed the three under coercive measures," the report said.
"They provided information on labor practices, wage standards and other internal information related to the running of the factory to overseas institutions, with the purpose of obtaining funding from these institutions," it said.
It said the three are currently being held under criminal detention for illegal use of eavesdropping equipment pending further investigation.
The report comes after Wen Yu, a lawyer hired by Hua's family was denied access to his client by detention center officials, said he had “met with an accident” in his cell.
However, Wen Yu was reluctant to comment when approached by RFA on Tuesday.
"I have already received a notification, and it isn't convenient for me to give an interview," Wen said. "But I can tell you that they are all three in the detention center."
He said Su Heng's family had also engaged a lawyer, who was able to meet with his client on Tuesday.
Labor law violations
The New York-based group China Labor Watch said Hua and Li had worked covertly at a shoe factory owned by the Huajian Group in the city of Dongguan, while Su had worked at a factory in Ganzhou. Both factories make Ivanka Trump-branded shoes, it said.
Rights activist Li Qiang, who heads the group, said the three investigators had amassed considerable evidence of widespread violations of labor laws by the factory.
"I think that the real reason that the authorities have placed them under criminal detention is that they want to prevent the material they gathered from being made public," he said.
Asked if he believes the detentions are linked to the factory's status as a supplier to the Ivanka Trump brand, he replied: "I think this whole affair is extremely embarrassing [for the government]."
Li said his organization works to undercover labor abuses in the Chinese supply chains of U.S. companies.
"We wanted to investigate U.S. companies over the abuse of Chinese workers' rights, and now people have wound up getting detained; and I think this has a lot to do with the Chinese government's mindset," he said.
Li said the three activists had uncovered ample evidence of abuses of workers by the factory on behalf of his group.
"We discovered that the longest shifts there would last from 7.10 a.m. through to 1.30 a.m. the following morning," Li told RFA.
"We also saw managers in the factory being verbally abusive to workers and humiliating them, using very offensive language, including language that insulted women," he said.
"They also used corporal punishment on workers," he said.
Li said the factory had also falsified its payroll information, and accused the local government of a cover-up.
He said Hua is being held in a cell alongside more than 20 other prisoners, all of whom have been ordered not to speak to him.
No official notification
Meanwhile, the family of Li Zhao has yet to receive any official notification of detention, he said.
Deng Guilian, Hua's wife, told Reuters she was not aware of the specifics of the case, though said her husband had told her he was not being mistreated.
Wen Yu told RFA that Deng had been allowed to transfer money to Hua's account, so he could buy daily necessities and extra food to supplement meager rations.
China on Tuesday rejected a call from the U.S. State Department for the release of the activists, saying they are being investigated on suspicion of interfering with a company's "normal operation and production activities" and the illegal use of "professional surveillance equipment."
"The case will be handled according to law," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Tuesday. "No country has the right to interfere in the judicial process."
The Ivanka Trump brand, the White House, and Ivanka Trump's lawyer Jamie Gorelick have not responded to requests for comment on the case, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.