Sweatshops Alive and Well

sweatshopNew Orleans In the prevailing wisdom and the back pats that we like to sometimes hope are well earned and deserved, in speaking with students on university campuses about organizing chapters to support ACORN International’s organizing in various countries I have occasionally used cited the effectiveness of the anti-sweatshop movement as exhibit one for why all of this makes sense and matters.  A series of recent emails from Jeff Ballinger and several conversations have forced me to step back and swallow that example.

I have a lot of respect for Ballinger that dates to the time the Organizers’ Forum delegation visited Indonesia several years ago and heard the stories of his expulsion for too aggressively doing his job with the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and insisting on US and other companies paying fair wages in just conditions.  Nothing in subsequent visits every did anything but add to his reputation.

After his expulsion he fought a long campaign to bring accountability particularly to Nike, the giant shoe and sportswear company.  For a 5+ year period in the 90’s the anti-sweatshop movement on campuses and broadly had the company on the ropes with 40% declines in sales and stock pricing.  Clearly, as organizers we know that is the time when leverage for victory would have been the highest, but alas….

The opening of a piece Jeff sent me from Summer 09 Dissent summarizes the situation now painfully:

“That nearly twenty years of anti-sweatshop activism has come to naught is suggested by the cost breakdown of a $37.99 University of Connecticut hoodie that appeared in the Hartford Courant a couple of years ago:  the workers received a mere 18 cents, while the university received $2.28 in licensing fees. (Mexican factor:  profit, 70 cents; overhead, $2.12, material, $5.50 – importer [Champion]: overhead, $5.10; profit, $1.75 – retailer [UCONN Co-op]: overhead, $14.49; profit, $4.50).  Use of the log was 80 cents, and the royalty to the National Collegiate Athletic Association was 57 cents.  The workers’ share could hardly have been lower when the movement began.”

It’s hard to even imagine an excuse for 18 cents for the workers, because there’s no reason for this.  Ballinger gives the credit to slick public relations work done by Nike and similar companies pretending to embrace “corporate social responsibility” or CSR.  More painfully has I talked to him and read his emails, was the feeling that too many non-profits here and around the globe had effectively sold out the workers as they “partnered” with corporations in these CSR schemes.

Elsewhere Ballinger does a back of the envelope calculations that makes it clearer since Nike might have spent $220 million on raising wage standards for its subcontractors in Indonesia and elsewhere, but the CSR program hardly cost 10% of that with a price tag of $25 million.  Ouch!

These have been unsettling conversations because a 3rd stage of the campaign, especially when so many of us have been lured into hoping and believing progress had been made, will no doubt be a harder sell and a steeper climb.  Not that there is a choice.  18 cents for workers is immoral and unacceptable!


1 thought on “Sweatshops Alive and Well

  1. Jim Keady


    Given your post above, I thought you might be interested in the following piece I had published on the Huffington Post a few weeks ago. We have a LOT of work to do to get Nike’s workers living wages and union contracts.

    Peace, Jim Keady

    by JIM KEADY

    Twelve years ago this month I got involved in the fight to end Nike’s sweatshop abuses. Twelve years is one third of my life. It’s somewhat surreal when I think of it like that.

    In 1997, I was in my first season as a graduate assistant coach with the Men’s Soccer Team at St. John’s University, the defending NCAA Division I National Champions. Along with my coaching, I was pursuing a masters degree in Theology. For one of my first classes, I was charged with writing a research paper linking moral theology and sports. I researched Nike’s sweatshops in light of Catholic Social Teaching. Simultaneously, the SJU Athletic Department was negotiating a $3,500,000.00 million dollar endorsement contract with Nike.

    Within six months I was at the center of a campus-wide debate over whether SJU should ink the deal. Within ten months I was given an ultimatum by my head coach, “Wear Nike and drop this issue, or resign.”

    I resigned in protest and became the first (and still the only) athlete or coach in the world to say “no” to taking part in a Nike endorsement deal because of their sweatshop abuses.

    The NY Times and the AP Wire picked up my story and I became an instant expert on the sweatshop issue. My critics charged that those were “great jobs for those poor people” and that “you can live like a king on a sweatshop wage in places like Indonesia.” I knew from my research that they were wrong, but I wanted to prove it.

    In July 2000 I lived with Nike factory workers in Indonesia. I lived in conditions they lived in and on the wages they paid – $1.25 a day. I lost 25lbs in a month in a rat-infested slum in Tangerang, Indonesia, home to tens of thousands of the women and men who produce the Nike sneakers adored by so many athletes and consumers.

    Following that initial immersion in 2000, I conducted field research in 2001, 2002, 2008 and 2009; I took part in demonstrations on three continents; I met with an Indonesian President (Wahid) and members of the U.S. Congress; I led workshops and listening sessions with Nike workers from a dozen factories in Bekasi, Bogor, Bandung, Balaraja, Tangerang, and Jakarta; I lobbied Nike shareholders and was escorted by police from at least one shareholder meeting; I produced a short documentary, “Behind the Swoosh” and am currently producing a feature documentary and writing a book, both under the title, SWEAT; I lectured at more than 400 schools in 39 states and in three different countries; and I met with representatives from Nike at all levels, including Nike founder and chairman, Phil Knight.

    Has there been any progress? Has anything changed?

    Yes. For example, because of the pressure that was placed on Nike by consumers, women workers no longer have to prove they are menstruating to get their legally guaranteed leave. Also, workers are no longer beaten with machetes or threatened at gunpoint for union organizing activity.

    However, while we have seen the progress mentioned above, we still have no movement on the two most important issues – Nike workers are still being paid a poverty wage and Nike still refuses to bargain with their workers in good faith.


    Because Nike has lied about working conditions and many consumers, even so-called progressives, believe that Nike “fixed those sweatshop problems.” They did not.

    How do I know?

    I was in Indonesia as recently as August 2009 and in my meetings with workers I heard all too familiar stories of inadequate wages, forced overtime, illegal firings for union organizing, workers being cheated out of pay, etc. In part, what made this trip slightly different, was that Caitlin Morris, Nike’s Director of Sustainable Business and Innovation, accompanied me. So now, when I put forth a charge about Nike’s sweatshop abuses, Nike cannot say it isn’t true as Ms. Morris was in the room with me when the latest round of videotaped allegations were made.

    Now, some may want to give Nike a tremendous amount of credit for sending Ms. Morris to Indonesia with me and for taking action on the aforementioned menstrual leave and union organizing issues. I give Nike no credit for these. Why? Because Nike did not make any of these improvements voluntarily; they needed to be publicly embarrassed and pilloried to make each of these changes. Congratulating Nike for discontinuing these corporate crimes would be like congratulating a thief for no longer stealing or congratulating a rapist for no longer raping.

    So, what do we do to get Nike to take action on the wage and collective bargaining issues? The same stuff we did to get them to move on the other human rights violations. We engage, we demonstrate, we publicly embarrass, and we organize, organize, organize!

    Come join the fight at http://www.teamsweat.org!

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