(en)Mayor Andrew Young on Nike Sweatshops

Lyn and Shawn (linjin@tao.ca)
Tue, 1 Jul 1997 01:05:31 pst

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Labor Alerts/Labor News a service of Campaign for Labor Rights 1247 "E" Street SE, Washington, DC 20003 clr@igc.apc.org (541) 344-5410 http://www.compugraph.com/clr

New York Times June 27, 1997 IN AMERICA / By BOB HERBERT

Mr. Young Gets It Wrong

Andrew Young, the civil rights leader and former United Nations ambassador, has completed a carefully guided tour of Nike factories in the Far East and declared that all is well.

"What we saw overwhelmingly was good," said Mr. Young.

He said the worst thing he had encountered was the luncheon situation at a factory turning out Nike apparel in China. "They were cooking rice for 15,000 people," he said during an interview at The Times, "and that just doesn't smell good."

Nike hired Mr. Young's consulting firm, Goodworks International, to review its Asian factory operations. As usual, the executives at the world's largest athletic footwear company knew exactly what they were doing. Mr. Young came back with a report that could hardly have been more flattering if it had been written by Nike itself.

Nike executives were so pleased they immediately took out full-page ads in The Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and other papers. The ads quote Mr. Young as saying, "It is my sincere belief that Nike is doing a good job . . . but Nike can and should do better." The company responds: "Nike agrees. Good isn't good enough in anything we do."

Oh, brother.

The kindest thing that can be said at this point is that Mr. Young was na´ve. He spent just three or four hours in each factory and even he acknowledges that "we probably should have insisted that we bring our own translators."

Mr. Young said he found no evidence of child or prison labor. He did not seem to realize that those are not the problems that critics of Nike operations in China, Vietnam and Indonesia have been complaining about. The issues in those countries are wretchedly low wages, enforced overtime, harsh and sometimes brutal discipline, and corporal punishment.

The problem with Mr. Young's report is that it deliberately ignores the most egregious abuses faced by the workers it ostensibly was designed to help. In Ho Chi Minh City, for example, Nike workers are paid the equivalent of $1.50 a day, which is not enough to cover the cost of food, shelter and transportation to and from work.

But Mr. Young's report did not address the issue of wages. "It is not reasonable," the report says, "to argue that any one particular U.S. company should be forced to pay U.S. wages abroad while its direct competitors do not."

That is disingenuous in the extreme. No one has argued that third-world workers should be paid the same as comparable American workers, or that a company should be forced to pay any particular wage. Nike's critics, including this one, argue that the company's full-time overseas workers should be paid at least a subsistence wage for the areas in which they live. A dollar fifty a day is not a subsistence wage in Ho Chi Minh City.

Mr. Young dodged the issue of corporal punishment as well. He acknowledged that there had been problems, but said he found no evidence of "widespread or systematic abuse." Other investigators, including Thuyen Nguyen, an American businessman who founded a group called Vietnam Labor Watch, have confirmed numerous reports of Nike workers undergoing serious and sometimes harrowing abuse.

As Mr. Nguyen noted yesterday, Nike has been operating in Vietnam for less than two years and already one factory official has been convicted of physically abusing workers, another fled the country during a police investigation of sexual-abuse charges and a third is under indictment for abusing workers.

Mr. Young himself spoke with Vietnamese workers who were forced to run around their factory in the hot sun until a dozen had fainted. He blamed the incident on the culture clash between the Taiwanese bosses in the factory and the Vietnamese workers who were being punished.

"This was the way they do things in Taiwan," he said. "You run around to get your blood pressure up, or race your motor."

Mr. Young recommended that Nike take steps to improve the grievance procedures and otherwise bolster the rights of the workers in its factories. Maybe he was kidding. Or maybe he just doesn't know that the systematic denial of worker rights is precisely what companies like Nike are seeking when they set up shop in countries like Indonesia, China and Vietnam.

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