That was horrible," said McClain Ramsey, the chief spokeswoman for the Nike footwear empire. "That was definitely horrible. Nike is definitely outraged that that was allowed to happen in a factory. I know that the manager has already been suspended. Nike has called for a full investigation, as have the authorities. That was just totally outrageous. I mean Nike is completely horrified."
Cynics might say that Nike is horrified that the story got out. But give Ms. Ramsey the benefit of the doubt. For whatever reasons, Nike wishes the incident had never occurred.
On March 8, which happened to be International Women's Day, 56 women employed at a factory making Nike shoes in Dong Nai, Vietnam, were punished because they hadn't worn regulation shoes to work. Factory officials ordered the women outside and made them run around the factory in the hot sun. The women ran and ran and ran. One fainted, and then another. Still they ran. They would be taught a lesson. They had worn the wrong shoes to work. More women fainted. The ordeal didn't end until a dozen workers had collapsed.
Thuyen Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American businessman who has been studying conditions at factories that make Nike shoes in Vietnam, wrote in a report released yesterday: "Vietnamese all over the country were outraged that on International Women's Day, when most companies in Vietnam give women workers flowers and other gifts, 12 Vietnamese women were so abused they had to spend the day in the emergency room."
Mr. Nguyen, a partner in a financial services company in New Jersey and a former vice president of the Bankers Trust Company, became interested in the treatment of workers in factories that make Nike products in Vietnam after watching a television report last fall about the abuse of such workers.
He contacted a number of organizations familiar with the plight of foreign sweatshop workers. And he called Nike. Nike officials invited Mr. Nguyen to tour a factory run by one of its contractors in Ho Chi Minh City. Mr. Nguyen accepted and the tour took place early this month.
On the surface, conditions in the plant seemed more or less satisfactory, although the workers appeared tired and Mr. Nguyen got the impression they were afraid to speak candidly to him. What Nike officials probably did not expect was that Mr. Nguyen would return later and, on his own, talk to workers away from the intimidating grounds of the factory. He would then go on to investigate conditions at plants run by three other Nike contractors.
What he found were the same kinds of demoralizing and debilitating abuses that a wide array of Nike critics have been spotlighting for a long time. Nike set up shop in Vietnam because labor there is even cheaper than in Indonesia. But apparently not cheap enough. Mr. Nguyen found that in some cases Nike contractors in Vietnam didn't even bother to pay the locally established minimum wage. And even when the minimum is paid it is not enough to cover the cost of three meager meals a day.
He found that the treatment of workers by the factory managers in Vietnam (usually Korean or Taiwanese nationals) is a "constant source of humiliation," that verbal abuse and sexual harassment occur frequently, and that "corporal punishment is often used." He found that extreme amounts of forced overtime are imposed on Vietnamese workers. "It is a common occurrence," Mr. Nguyen wrote in his report, "to have several workers faint from exhaustion, heat and poor nutrition during their shifts. We were told that several workers even coughed up blood before fainting."
Rather than crack down on the abusive conditions in the factories, Nike has resorted to an elaborate international public relations campaign to give the appearance that it cares about the workers. But no amount of public relations will change the fact that a full-time worker who makes $1.60 a day is likely to spend a fair amount of time hungry if three very simple meals cost $2.10.
Nike has hired former United Nations representative Andrew Young to oversee -- and presumably attempt to improve -- the conditions in the factories of its contractors.
"Mr. Young," said Mr. Nguyen, "has a lot of work to do."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times
NOTE NOTE: Campaign for Labor Rights and Press for Change are organizing a Canadian/U.S. speaking tour by Cicih Sukaesih, to take place during much of May. Watch for further alerts on this important event. Ms. Sukaesih, who toured parts of the U.S. last summer, was part of a group of Indonesian women fired by a Nike contractor when they organized for their rights. The Canadian portion of this speaking tour is being generously funded by the Social Justice Fund of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), with additional financial support from the Alberta Federation of Labor. The tour coincides with the culmination of a CAW postcard campaign in support of Muchtar Pakpahan, who is on trial for his life in Indonesia -- allegedly for treason but in reality because he a leader of the largest independent trade union in his country. Such is the climate of repression from which Nike profits in Indonesia and China.
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