Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. 1, No. 10: November 9, 1996 

Warning to Nike Workers: Do It--Or Else

"Did you know about the workers who were made to kneel on the ground--45 of them for 25 minutes--with their hands in the air?" A reporter from CBS' "48 Hours," Roberta Baskin, put that question to a Nike public relations man, and she quickly asked another one. "Does that bother you?"

"Roberta," he replied on camera, "it bothers me very much when things happen to workers--it bothers me very much."

"Were you aware of that incident?" Baskin continued.

"I was not aware of that incident," he said, obviously embarrassed.

That exchange closed a "48 Hours" broadcast on October 17 titled "Just Do it--Or Else." The incident the two discussed occurred at one of five factories in Vietnam, where 25,000 Vietnamese, mostly young women, work six days a week making Nike shoes at 20 cents an hour. Low wages are not the worst of the problems faced by these workers.

One of the worst is physical abuse. Beatings and other violence against workers are not unusual in the Asian plants rushing to make shoes, garments, toys, and other products for the global market, but the reports about such acts are seldom documented first-hand. The CBS broadcast provided evidence directly from 15 workers who were punished for making mistakes in stitching Nike shoes. The 15 young women demonstrated how a Korean supervisor had struck them, two or three times each, on the back of the head and the side of the neck, with a Nike shoe. Two of the workers went to the hospital for treatment.

'It's No Big Deal'

 One Vietnamese newspaper headlined: "Violent Acts against 15 Workers." In defense, the Korean supervisor was quoted as saying: "It's not a big deal. It's just a method for managing workers." Vietnamese authorities refused to accept that. A Vietnamese court, for the first time, put on trial a foreigner for assaulting workers, but suspended her sentence and allowed her to leave the country.

The resulting outcry brought to light these other specific abuses in the booming factories managed by Koreans:

In her report, Baskin had this pertinent comment: "Nike says [such] behavior was unacceptable and steps have been taken to prevent it from happening again. But somehow in all the [Vietnamese] newspaper reports about the labor abuses, you never see Nike's name. Remember--Nike doesn't OWN the factories. Its Korean subcontractors do. And it's the Koreans who've been catching the blame, while Nike keeps a low profile."

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, Nike founder Phil Knight, the sixth richest man in America, announced that Nike's quarterly revenue had surpassed $2 billion for the first time in Nike's history. Stockholders at the company's annual meeting in September applauded loudly. They also rejected a proposal, introduced by the United Methodist Church pension fund, that would have required an independent review of working conditions in the Asian plants making Nike products.

Where Is the Outrage?

Revelations about outrageous practices in Asia's booming factories are nothing new. CBS, for example, had a similar report in 1993 on a Nike factory in Indonesia. On Nov. 3, an article in the Outlook section of the Washington Post exposed the military-like regimentation in three huge factories in Dongguan, China, where Taiwanese owners employ 40,000 workers to make sneakers for Nike and nine other companies, Reebok, L.A. Gear, and New Balance among them. In short, in today's global marketplace, there is a staggering amount of documentation of victimization of the most vulnerable Asian workers, mostly women.

To quote Robert Dole in a different context: "Where is the outrage? Where is the outrage?" In Asia's "emerging" economies, the regimes usually cover up the names of American companies directly or indirectly involved in abusing workers. But in the United States, the names of the guilty do get publicized. Like the Nike PR man, millions are now aware of the far-away "incidents" afflicting women and men serving our needs.

Reaction here is mild, however, and for many reasons. One is that corporations like Nike manage to hire big names to defuse embarrassing issues. At the Nike stockholders meeting, for example, Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, a paid board member of Nike, defended the company. After a conducted tour of some Nike plants in Vietnam and Indonesia, Thompson reported: "I did not see the kind of things I had heard about."

Silence about Singapore Conclave

One of the most important meetings of this decade is taking place in Singapore December 9-13. Top leaders of more than 120 nations are gathering there to discuss the future work of a powerful new international organization, the World Trade Organization, or WTO for short. Its operations will affect the lives of all the world's peoples. Yet, except on pages of business news, the WTO's work is one of the best kept secrets of our time.

During his abortive campaign for the Republican nomination, Pat Buchanan did raise the WTO, but he demonized it. Trade technocrats tend to deify it. Both approaches are wrong. The WTO is a necessary organization, but as currently operated it is pursuing policies that discriminate against workers--against all workers, wherever they are. Trade negotiations regularly result in protecting the rights of business, but for more than two decades now the WTO and its predecessors have refused even to consider how to assist the powerless International Labor Organization to protect the rights of workers.

Asian dictators are especially glib in defending the WTO's discriminatory policy. But most bureaucrats even from democratic countries are on the side of the dictators. Their rationales are many. Did you know, for example, that forcing a girl or boy of 7 or 8 to work in a garment factory is actually good for them? Keeps Asian kids out of trouble. Of course, if you recall the history of slavery, this kind of argument will sound familiar.

As currently constituted, world trade is promoting the forced labor of children. As currently constituted, the World Trade Organization coldly ignores human values. Where is the outrage? Campaigns for a return to values are myopic if they ignore the international marketplace.

(For background, check the article Time to End Discrimination in Trade Policies)


Special circumstances over the last few months forced me to neglect this site. The many serious attacks on the human rights of workers, however, prompt me to resume a regular schedule.

Thank the Lord, some people are outraged by what is happening, and are doing something about it. More about that in a future issue.


Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
(Send e-mail)

Bulletin No. 10: November 9, 1996


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