Asia-Pacific, Headlines

U.S.-INDONESIA: Nike Endorses Monitoring After Labour Flap

NEW YORK, Jul 25 1996 (IPS) - Cicih Sukaesih, a short, small-boned Indonesian woman, may not seem a formidable force.

But, within hours of her effort this week to enter the headquarters of the Nike shoe manufacturers in Oregon, Sukaesih set off a public relations storm that could force the conglomerate to approve independent monitoring of its overseas subcontractors.

Sukaesih was fired four years ago from an Indonesia plant that manufactures Nike shoes after she organised a strike against the South Korean factory owners.

Tuesday, Nike employees barred her from the company’s Portland, Oregon, headquarters when Sukaesih demanded to meet Chief Executive Officer Phil Knight, arguing, “I want to ask him to consider the plight of Indonesian workers.”

But, although the five-foot-tall unemployed factory worker was rebuffed, she has managed, during a two-week trip to the United States, to stir up enough bad public relations for Nike to prod a change.

Donna Gibbs, a Nike spokeswoman, told IPS that the shoe company Tuesday accepted an offer from President Bill Clinton’s administration to join a group of “responsible” corporations that would study a range of international labour issues.

Along with apparel companies, including Liz Claiborne and Van Heusen, Nike will advise the Clinton administration on how corporations can improve their labour practises abroad, she says.

The group, Gibbs explains, would “develop global labour standards, which would include a system of independent monitoring.”

Nike claims it already has adequate independent monitoring of its overseas subcontractors, provided by the Ernst and Young firm. But critics claim that abuses persist in the treatment of Nike workers abroad. “Their code of conduct has been a charade,” accuses Jeff Bellinger of the labour advocacy group ‘Press for Change’.

“We feel there’s always room to improve and expand” Nike monitoring, Gibbs acknowledges. She says that the desire to improve such monitoring, along with healthcare and lodging for overseas workers, played a key role in the sudden decision to join the new group proposed by the Clinton administration.

Critics of Nike’s overseas record, however, point instead to the effect workers like Sukaesih have in drawing the attention of U.S. consumers to the poor conditions that workers making goods for the U.S. market face.

Medea Benjamin, co-director of the activist group ‘Global Exchange’, a sponsor of Sukaesih’s U.S. trip, says U.S. consumers are willing to prod companies to treat overseas workers better.

“The consumers would totally welcome better working conditions, as long as it doesn’t cause a raise in (retail) prices,” she says. “They would like assurances that the products they buy are not produced by underpaid, abused workers.”

John Cavanagh, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, adds that, according to a recent poll, 84 percent of U.S. consumers would be willing to pay slightly more for their products made overseas if they could ensure that they were made under good working conditions.

Sukaesih’s blitz of the U.S. media in recent days has thus focused attention on Nike’s own record in Indonesia, prompting the company to change its tune, Benjamin argues.

Sukaesih says that, while she worked for the South Korean-owned Sung Hwa Dunia company making Nike shoes four years ago, she earned only USD 1.20 a day — less than Indonesia’s legal minimum wage at that time of USD 1.30 a day. After she organised a strike, she says, she was fired, and remains on a blacklist that prevents her from being employed at all.

(Gibbs denies that any Nike-hired subcontractors pay below Indonesia’s minimum wage, which currently stands at USD 2.25 per day.)

Sukaesih’s story is similar to those of workers from the garment and apparel industry in Central America and Haiti, many of whom have also come to the United States in recent months to broadcast the ills of subcontracting firms that produce for U.S. markets.

Recently, television host Kathie Lee Gifford was embarrassed when teenage workers who made clothes for her ‘Kathie Lee’ clothing imprint in El Salvador revealed the long hours, low pay and frequent abuse they suffered. Gifford has since urged tighter monitoring of overseas firms — and last week featured Sukaesih on her morning talk show.

Gibbs, however, denies that Sukaesih and her sponsors had any effect on Nike’s corporate policy, and she defended Nike’s existing monitoring programme as effective.

Nike, Gibbs argues, would not listen to critics who intend to rely on “news conferences and mean-spirited media campaigns.”

“They certainly haven’t been very gracious in starting a dialogue,” Benjamin counters, noting Nike’s rebuff of Sukaesih. But Benjamin adds that the prompt announcement that Nike will join the Clinton-backed group is a sign of tangible progress.

Whether adverse publicity will always spark a quick improvement in labour conditions overseas is an open question, however. Benjamin concedes that U.S. consumers are much more concerned about reports that child workers are being mistreated in places like Indonesia and El Salvador: “They are less concerned with underpaid adult workers.”

Cavanagh claims that the mainly female Indonesian workforce that makes Nike shoes earns an average of USD 1.35 a day — so that, on the whole, the entire workforce earns four million dollars less from Nike than basketball star and Nike spokesman Michael Jordan.

Benjamin says that Global Exchange has approached Jordan to see if he could use his considerable prestige to push for better working conditions in Indonesia and elsewhere. But the basketball hero has yet to get involved, she says.

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