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In November 2015, a 67-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman named Marilyn Cohen filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against a freight logistics firm named Alba Wheels Up International, which has helped facilitate more than a hundred shipments of Ivanka Trump brand merchandise from China.
The suit, filed in the southern district of New York, alleges that Cohen suffered an array of discriminatory harms at the hands of her superiors at Alba. Cohen not only claims that she was shunned for her religion and her age, but she also describes one of these slights as intermingling with overt sexism.
In one instance, Cohen alleges that she complained to a superior about a truck driver who often came into the office wearing a T-shirt that read “Pussy, the most expensive thing you will ever eat.” According to the suit, after Cohen spoke out against the offending item of clothing, a superior humiliated her in front of other employees, apparently commenting on Cohen’s religion-inflected views on sex and stating that it was known that her “mind is in the gutter.”
The suit calls attention to an often overlooked part of the many-faceted global supply chain of Ivanka Trump and numerous other fashion brands. As a freight forwarding company, Alba helps oversee and facilitate the complex shipping process that allows goods to leave ports along China’s east coast and end up on American department store shelves.
US customs records show that, since 2014, the Ivanka Trump brand has relied on Alba Wheels Up to facilitate more than 150 shipments of merchandise, mostly through the fashion firm G-III, one of the Ivanka Trump brand’s main licensees. According to a search of US customs data compiled by Panjiva, the Ivanka Trump name appears on more than 360 shipment logs captured since 2011, making Alba appear a primary logistics contractor supporting the brand.
Alba’s most recent shipments of Ivanka Trump products arrived in the Port of Los Angeles earlier this month on two vessels that had both originated in Shanghai and were together carrying hundreds of pounds of “100% polyester woven blouse” and “ladies’ 100% polyester woven dress” according to federal records in the Panjiva database. Both records list the shipments as simply “G-III for Ivanka Trump.”
Cohen’s complaint states that she had first taken her claim to the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which granted her a notice of “her right to sue,” meaning that the agency was unable to establish a violation of civil law by Alba and that Cohen was now free to pursue a lawsuit on her own.
In her suit against Alba, Cohen identifies herself as a licensed customs broker, a role defined by US Customs and Border Protection as a person licensed “to assist importers and exporters in meeting Federal requirements governing imports and exports.”
In responding to Cohen’s allegations, Alba Wheels Up was represented by Jackson Lewis, a leading management-side employment law firm with a reputation for helping corporate clients defeat efforts among workers to unionize. In a response to Cohen’s complaint filed by the firm, Alba denied every single one of Cohen’s assertions of discrimination, but provided few specific facts to demonstrate its side of the story. Alba’s response claimed that Cohen had “failed to take advantage of and exhaust the preventative or corrective opportunities” that Alba had provided.
After a little over four months, a federal judge in New York dismissed Cohen’s lawsuit against Alba, ordering the case be sent to private mediation because, the judge wrote, it had not been filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act and thus would automatically be sent to mediation as do all such “counseled employment discrimination cases.”
Cohen’s superiors, the suit said, had also made insulting objections to her observance of religious holidays and dietary restrictions. The complaint alleges that, although Cohen’s time-off requests for religious holidays were always approved, two of her superiors would make “frequent nasty comments” regarding her leave. Cohen believed that her superiors aggressively attempted to push her out of the company, allegedly telling her the “time had come” for her to “go to Israel.”
This toxic dynamic came to a head, the complaint maintains, shortly after Passover in 2015 when Cohen’s superiors complained about her having taken time off for the holiday. In response to this, Cohen asked for a meeting with management. “Suspecting that Alba would further discriminate against her or try to push her out of the company,” the complaint asserts, Cohen requested to have an attorney present at the meeting. In response to this, as per Cohen, Alba immediately fired her.
It is unclear what happened, if anything, during mediation. In a voicemail, a Jackson Lewis attorney that represented Alba in Cohen’s suit said that the company does not comment on litigation. The attorney who represented Cohen in the suit declined to discuss the case. The Ivanka Trump brand also declined to comment on the case.
Now that Ivanka Trump’s father is acquainting himself with a presidency he won through, among other means, a vigorous promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, new questions have emerged about whether the Trump brands will move their own production to America. (One thing Trump has done as president is condemn Nordstrom’s dropping of his daughter’s brand.)
As Alba is only a contractor of her brand’s licensee, Ivanka Trump, an Orthodox Jew herself, is likely to have never heard of the lawsuit; a case like Marilyn Cohen’s would represent a mere blip along any major brand’s supply chain. This is indicative of fashion’s highly segmented systems of global trade, in which brands use layers of subcontractors that create distance from potential liability or even knowledge of what is happening downstream in lines of production and distribution.
It’s unclear what role companies like Alba Wheels Up would play in the domestic manufacturing economy that Donald Trump hopes to create. But for now — as per Alba’s continued shipments from China for the Ivanka Trump brand in recent weeks — the First Daughter is showing little sign of shifting production back home.