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Wednesday, May 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Activist challenges Nike's labor ethics
By Rukmini Callimachi
In his spare time, Adam Neiman, a workers-rights activist, manufactures plain sneakers that Neiman admits are a copy of the Converse brand now owned by Nike.
But there's one crucial difference the shoe comes with a labor-disclosure form, stating the wages and benefits earned by workers who manufacture the sneakers in Jakarta, Indonesia.
In a staged confrontation yesterday, Neiman arrived at Nike's sprawling campus here to challenge Nike to include the same kind of disclosure form with each pair of its own shoes.
"We're asking them to put their cards on the table. Put it in the shoebox," said Neiman, president and co-founder of the Massachusetts-based No Sweat Apparel.
In the No Sweat shoebox, the card states that the sneaker is made in a 100-percent-union factory in Jakarta, Indonesia. The lowest-paid worker there makes 785,000 Indonesian rupiah, or $90 a month, 25 percent more than the region's minimum wage. Benefits include a 30-liters-a-month rice allowance, maternity leave, shift differentials and medical benefits.
Neiman hoped to meet with Nike CEO Phil Knight, but the staff at the security console radioed for Caitlin Morris, Nike's communications manager for global issues.
"It's an interesting initiative," Morris said after their private meeting. "Nike is always looking for ways to be innovative in how it communicates with consumers."
She said, however, that adding the disclosure form inside the box is not practical, given that Nike contracts with nearly 900 factories overseeing 660,000 workers.
Neiman presented Morris with a pair of No Sweat sneakers.
"The white star is a Nike trademark," Morris said, noting that Nike attorneys will determine whether the Converse look-alike is a copyright infringement.
Another founder of No Sweat Apparel is Jeff Ballinger, who in 1992 wrote an exposé on the factories for Harper's Monthly. At that time, Ballinger accused Nike of allowing child labor, preventing collective bargaining and offering substandard wages.
Nike responded by drafting a code of conduct and creating an aggressive corporate-responsibility division.
Its factories are now audited by the Fair Labor Association and the results are available online a far more comprehensive assessment than No Sweat's shoebox initiative, Morris contended.
She added that Nike also allows collective bargaining and offers at least the minimum wage in all of its contracted factories.
Neiman, however, says that's not enough.
Neiman does not deny that a job at a Nike factory offers a better standard of living than those at a typical Indonesian plant, but as the industry leader, he contends Nike should offer more.
"The question is, can we get from bad to decent? And from decent to good?" Neiman said before his meeting with Morris.
Collective bargaining is another point of friction.
No Sweat shoemakers in Indonesia are represented by the Confederation of Indonesian Employees Unions, Textiles, Clothing & Leather. Morris said workers in Nike's Indonesian factories also are represented by this union.
But workers-rights activists say Nike has shifted more than 50 percent of its contracts to factories in China and Vietnam, countries which do not allow workers to organize.
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