Vol. III, Bulletin No. 7. April 6, 1998
Nike Workers Ignored By Nike's OutreachWhy It's High Time For CEO Phil KnightAs never before, Nike officials in various parts of the world are making contact with people whom they once dismissed as nuisances or worse. The sports industry giant has initiated face-to-face dialogues with leaders of selected non-governmental groups long critical of Nike for the abusive labor practices of its contractors in Indonesia, China, and other countries.
To Meet the Challenge and Say, 'We Can Do It'
With negative publicity mounting, Nike officials, including a new vice president for global and corporate responsibility, Maria Eitel, are probing for ways to take off the heat. At least one important group has assured Eitel that Nike critics are interested in cooperating to find solutions, not in pursuing an "endless anti-Nike campaign."
Who Can Speak for Nike's Workers?
It is a smart move for Nike to meet with representatives of its critics. But not smart enough. Why doesn't Nike's outreach extend to representatives of Nike workers?
NGOs, even the best of them, far removed physically and otherwise from the working women and men in Nike factories, are weak surrogates. They are in no position to negotiate for Nike's workers.
Nike's corporate code of conduct implicitly recognizes that workers have the right to speak for themselves. The code states:
"Nike seeks partners [i.e., manufacturing contractors] that share our commitment to the promotion of best practices and continuous improvement in...management practices that recognize the dignity of the individual, the rights of free association and collective bargaining, and the right to a work place free of harassment, abuse or corporal punishment." [Italics added.]Now, As to What That Commitment Really Means...
Nike has prepared a lengthy statement, "Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining," explaining that commitment. (It can be found on the Web at http://nikebiz.com/social/labor/freedom.html, as can related documents on the same special Website, including Nike's code of conduct.) In its opening paragraph, the statement says that "we believe workers should have the opportunity to form unions and negotiate with management on a collective basis." But don't jump to any conclusions. The statement goes on to explain:
Briefly: the right to unionize, important though it may be in theory, is none of Nike's business in practice, except that its code of conduct will "over time," foster a climate of "wider understandings" of worker rights among employers and workers. Nice try.
- "Nike is not telling its contractors that there needs to be labor unions in every factory with which Nike does business. What it does say is that Nike wants to do business with factory owners that understand and recognize these rights and will not illegally interfere with workers' legal efforts to exercise those rights."
- But: "Some countries, either by law or practice, only recognize government sanctioned unions and prohibit independent unions." (No specific countries are mentioned.)
- "It is not realistic nor wise to ask companies to divest from these countries."
- "Neither one company nor one industry can force a government to change its national laws--that kind of clout does not exist."
Guess to whom Nike passes the buck? To governments. They have the "critical roles to play." So do "international labor unions who have a vested interest in ensuring these rights are upheld."
Nike should not be allowed to get away with this evasive "it's-none-of-our-business" posture. In dialogues with NGOs, it must be persuaded to get a better understanding of its own "vested interest." Otherwise Nike's troubles will only intensify.
Needed: a Management Vision Equal to Nike's Power
That realization might yet sink in with CEO Phil Knight and Nike's other shareholders. For three reasons:
That's a very hot potato Nike has in its lap. Passing it to others won't work.
- More and more Nike workers around the world are protesting against inhumane treatment. It behooves Nike to hear from them directly, not just through scandals reported on TV or indirectly through NGOs.
- Nike is a corporate giant, with all the muscle that comes from a 35% global market share. Governments in countries with Nike plants will listen more attentively to Phil Knight than to the U.S. Ambassador. Even Ambassadors will think and act differently if Phil Knight talks straight about worker rights.
- Nike's own self-image raises high expectations. Its code of conduct says: "We are driven to do not only what is required, but what is expected of a leader."
CEO Knight ought to reflect on two of Nike's inspirational advertising slogans, "Just Do It" and "I Can." As a powerful world leader, Knight could rally all of industry around a new respect for the basic rights of working men and women everywhere. To assume that historic role, he would need a new management vision, one that proclaims "We Can Do It."
More Sweat and Toil of Children
Oh, to have a handy pocket guide to help shoppers reject products made in sweatshops. None exists. Even better would be for sweatshop-free goods to carry "no-sweat" labels, under a system such as once promoted by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. That doesn't exist either.
A new U.S. Department of Labor report praises labeling programs not just as aids to consumers in stores but as tools to eliminate child labor from workshops. Unfortunately, progress toward such goals is stalemated.
In January President Clinton raised hopes in his State of the Union address. He won applause for his promise to "send legislation to Congress, and ask other nations to join us, to fight the most intolerable practice of all--abusive child labor," but nothing has happened, and, according to insiders, nothing will. (Check his words in http://www.law.uoknor.edu/hist/state98.html.)
"Consumer Labels and Child Labor," fourth volume in the Labor Department's series titled "By the Sweat and Toil of Children," describes the up-hill efforts to establish consumer labeling programs in several industries--hand-knotted carpets, soccer balls, tea, and leather footwear. Mainly, it illustrates how much could be accomplished and how little has been..
This volume, like its predecessors, is available on the Labor Department's Website at http://www.dol.gov/dol/ilab/public/media/reports/childnew.htm.
Diary: Exploring the Northwest and Beyond
I seldom read a book from cover to cover, but I couldn't resist doing so with Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose. I found it fascinating, not just as an adventure story but as a historical narrative that made me think of some parallels in modern times.
Take the attitude toward Indians shown by the expedition leader, Captain Meriwether Lewis. For him, a Virginia gentleman, the Indians were "savages" or at best "children." Yet without the food, shelter, horses, canoes, guides, and other assistance from friendly Indian tribes, Lewis and his team of explorers would never have completed their long trek by water and land from St. Louis to the Pacific and back again. In fact, they would never have survived.
In Lewis' eyes, the Indians were mere tools for an exploration largely driven by crass commercial motives. "Commerce is the great engine by which we are to coerce them [the Indians], and not war," Lewis was advised by his mentor, President Thomas Jefferson. "The operative verb in the sentence was 'coerce'," Ambrose correctly points out. And the objective was to establish an American trading empire in the Northwest under an Indian policy that Ambrose characterizes as "get out of the way or get killed."
Turning to Modern-Day Global Scenarios
Fast forward to the U.S. today and (for example) our China policy. Which is better:
But those aren't the only policy alternatives in globalization. Such a narrow formulation is a common logical fallacy, technically called the "fallacy of a false dilemma," as I discovered from a comprehensive guide to logical fallacies on the Website. (The site is the work of Stephen Downes of Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, at http://www.assiniboinec.mb.ca/user/downes/fallacy.) What are the better alternatives? That's an on-going exploration to which the reporting here in Human Rights for Workers is dedicated.
- To admit publicly, as an anonymous White House aide told Time several years ago, "We're in China to make all the money we can" ? Or
- To proclaim noble but phony motives--that we're using commerce to foster freedom and human rights?(Though no substitute for reading Ambrose's book, the PBS Website at http://www.pbs.org/lewisandclark is worth exploring.)Linking Up to Events in China
China Labor Bulletin, edited and published in Hong Kong, now has its own Website at http://www.china-labour.org.hk. It contains some items from the bi-monthly Bulletin but adds others, such as a listing of 17 of the many labor activists locked up in China. It also has a form for subscribing to the Bulletin at the cost of the equivalent of 500 Hong Kong dollars a year.
For background on the Chinese government's gruesome trade in kidneys and other organs from executed prisoners, check the Website of the Laogai Research Foundation at http://www.laogai.org. It contains a special report titled "The International Sale of Chinese Prisoners' Organs: Who is the Real Criminal?"
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. III-7, April 6, 1998
Robert A. Senser, editor
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