Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Nike, Sweatshops and Slave Labor

A Running Commentary is a new blog from a local journalist Matthew Lemmon. He and his wife are training for the Nike Women's Marathon, which will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Each person entering the marathon must raise $3800 to be eligible. I've been approached for contributions by two young women from the area who are also scrambling to raise the money to enter this race.

Nike, along with mega-retailer Wal-Mart, have been deservedly criticized in reports of human rights abuses in their factories in third world countries. People who create the shoes and other products for Nike are virtual slaves. They work long hours, often 7 days a week, for a few cents per hour.

From a 2005 report from the New Zealand Herald, Nike Admits Sweatshop Conditions:

In a 108-page report the company, based in Beaverton, Oregon, presented a surprisingly frank audit of labour conditions at 569 of 830 factories worldwide where Nike-branded footwear, apparel and sports equipment are made.

Nike's "corporate responsibility" report doesn't make for a pretty picture. From excessively long work weeks and wrong wage calculations to verbal abuse and curbs on toilet visits, the findings confirm a pervasive culture of exploitation. At risk are as many as 650,000 workers in factories located from Australia and China to the US and Vietnam. Most of them are women aged between 19 and 25.

In 2006, Nike spent $476 million dollars on celebrity endorsements, and CNBC reported Investors Fret About Nike Endorsements. The total Nike advertising budget for 2006 totaled $1.7 billion. A perfect picture of corporate greed and disregard for basic human rights, because, after all is said and done, profits count more than people.

Maybe Mr. Lemmon and his wife have not seen the PBS programs about sweatshops. Mainstream media seldom bothers to report on the inhumane working conditions in third world factories. The two young girls who asked me for a contribution for their Nike Marathon have never considered what happens to their counterparts who fall asleep on the job, like these two young girls in the documentary China Blue.

Before free trade agreements allowed the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, many of the shoes and clothing in U.S. retail stores were made in local factories. U.S. workers were protected by our labor laws and many of them also had unions looking out for their interests. U.S. factories were also required to abide by OSHA safety standards and prevented from large scale pollution of the environment. Third world countries have none of these impediments to profit.

Perhaps Nike is trying to brush up it's tarnished image by getting well-meaning people like these local marathoners involved in a charitable cause. Maybe, as they laboriously train for this marathon, in the far recesses of their memory bank, they know that their wonderful and charmed life is subsidized by human misery on a vast scale.

These people with good intentions are the ones who could and should say no to Nike, demand transparency and accountability. By all means, give to the deserving Leukemia and Lymphoma Foundation. But why not channel that energy used in marathon training into bringing attention to much needed change. These human rights abuses allow our stores to be filled with cheap merchandise, and companies like Nike to give people like Tiger Woods $20 million for an endorsement, while giving virtual slave laborers 20 cents an hour to produce their goods.

I already give yearly donations to several cancer charities. So, after considering these requests for donations to Nike marathoners, I have decided to give instead to a group called Educating For Justice who have produced a film (soon to be released) called SWEAT.

SWEAT is the athlete’s version of Erin Brokovich, The Insider and Serpico. In 1997, a soccer coach at St. John’s University said no to taking part in a $3.5 million dollar deal to endorse Nike products because of Nike’s use of sweatshop labor. He was forced out of his job and outcast from the coaching ranks. People told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about, that work in a Nike factory was a “great job for those people.” He went to find out for himself. In the summer of 2000, he and a friend took off to live with factory workers in a slum in Indonesia and they lived on the workers’ wages, $1.25 a day. They lost 40lbs collectively in the month, but more importantly, by living in solidarity with workers, they built bonds of trust. Over the course of three research trips, workers shared the real human suffering behind the Nike success story. Together with workers, they have spent the past four years educating tens of thousands of people about this issue and fighting to end the injustice that Nike’s workers face each day.

It's difficult to find a running shoe that isn't made in a third world country by slave labor. Nike is the leader in the field of athletic shoes. If they make changes for the better, the industry as a whole will be challenged to follow. Hopefully this film will make an impact, but basically it like a voice crying in the wilderness of sweatshop factories.

Think, Nike marathoners, with every step you take, if your energy and determination could truly be channeled to making a major difference in the world.


Granny said...

It all seems so simple when viewed from our comfy seats here in the USA.

Make no mistake about it, working conditions in Indonesia are harsh. The unemployment/underemployment rate runs close to 60%. And Nike and other non-Indonesian companies that set up manufacturing plants in Indonesia are often guilty of being too trusting of local managers, contractors and sub-contractors to run their operations.

The truth is, though, that $1.25 a day is better than most any other wage for non-skilled or semi-skilled workers in Indonesia. Believe it or not, it's a living wage. Nike and other foreign firms include monthly allotments of rice, sugar, cooking oil and heating oil, and they provide medical care, clean drinking water and housing for employees and their families. Housing almost always includes running potable water and electricity. These allotments are almost always required by the Indonesian government before an OUTSIDE company can do business in Indonesia. We lived and worked among Indonesians for many years, so I speak from personal experience on this issue. As a matter of fact, we lived...you guessed it...in company housing.

I have been in a shoe factory in Indonesia. I know that Indonesians prefer to work for Nike than for companies that are owned and operated by Indonesians.

If we Americans boycott Nike many, many Indonesians who support large, extended families will lose their jobs. Punishing Nike is a popular, knee-jerk reaction, but it won't solve the problem.

Your post in thoughtful. I appreciate your caring about the issue of workers in emerging nations. BUT I urge to you advocate for stronger enforcement of human rights BY THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT. They're the problem; not Nike.

Pardon the rant. Thanks for listening.

"Been There!"

Granny said...

Sorry, I forgot to add that it's extremely difficult for women between the ages of 19-25 to get a job---any job--- in Indonesia. Discrimination is legal. Employers tell women to "Go Away! We will hire only men." Nike and other companies hire women: this is HUGE.