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Originally published Friday, September 25, 2009 at 2:43 PM

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UW should re-examine apparel relationship with Nike over Honduras inaction

The University of Washington should re-examine its relationship with Nike because of the company's closure of factories in Honduras without paying workers money that is owed, argue Angelina S. Godoy and James N. Gregory. Husky pride should be about more than winning games

Special to The Times

THIS week, those who follow Central American politics have been gripped by dramatic stories of President Zelaya's surprise return to Honduras, almost three months after he was deposed in a military coup. The unfolding turmoil in the streets of Honduras may seem a world away from the recent excitement of Husky football, but the truth is, a four-letter word connects them: Nike.

The University of Washington's most important licensee, Nike, has been sourcing apparel from factories in Honduras for years. Yet two of its facilities, Vision Tex and Hugger, closed their doors in January, without paying their approximately 1,800 workers the terminal compensation mandated by law — in some cases, without even paying them for hours already worked. The total owed to workers tops $2.5 million.

Under the terms of Nike's agreement with the UW and other major universities, the company is required to ensure that local and international law is upheld in the production of university apparel. In cases where the law is violated, Nike is obligated to work toward remediation. Yet in Hugger and Vision Tex, Nike first denied responsibility, and then claimed that Honduras' political turmoil has precluded the company's involvement in remediation.

The crisis in Honduras is indeed serious. Human-rights activists have been summarily detained, independent media shut down; labor unionists are among those subjected to systematic repression by the de facto government that seized power June 28. The local minister of labor, Lucia Rosales, who had been responsive to the concerns of workers at Vision Tex and Hugger, was removed from her post and replaced with a new minister reportedly tone-deaf to workers' rights. This has left workers like those who sewed UW apparel for Nike more vulnerable than ever.

Nike's claims that the situation prevents the company from addressing the problem are not credible. If anyone has freedom of movement and expression in Honduras under Roberto Micheletti's right-wing regime, it is corporations like Nike. Nike has failed to make even a phone call to the workers for months. The company has stood idly by while employees were denied access even to the remaining machinery in the plants, which it had agreed they could sell as a means of minimal compensation. In this context, Nike's inaction amounts to coup profiteering.

It's great that the Huskies have started to win again. It's also great that the university announced last week that it has been garnering near-record earnings from the licensing of UW apparel; this licensing program, as well as the athletic department, bring in much-needed revenue to support the operations of the university.

In recent years, UW has shown itself to be a leader in respecting labor rights. Not only has the university signed on to the most ambitious program to date to reform the production of collegiate apparel, the Workers Rights Consortium's Designated Supplier Program, but in 2008-09 UW played an unprecedented leadership role in brokering remediation for workers at the Estofel plant in Guatemala, where the factory closed after an attempt to unionize, leaving workers without payment. These are legacies of which UW can be proud.

Yet in the cases of Hugger and Vision Tex, the UW seems to have lost its way, even honoring Nike with an award this year as a "leader of the pack" despite the company's failure to respond seriously to these cases. Perhaps the same inexplicable malaise that afflicted the football program for so long has led to this apparent backsliding on workers' rights? Or is there a connection between our growing earnings and the UW's shrinking resolve to stand up for justice?

Now is the time to show the world that Husky pride is about more than winning games — it's also about living up to our ideals. UW should re-examine its business relationship with those who fail to do so.

Angelina S. Godoy, left, is Helen H. Jackson Chair in Human Rights and director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights. James N. Gregory is Harry Bridges Endowed Chair of Labor Studies and director of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington.

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