MONITOR ISSUE CENTERS ON ACTIVE
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — For activewear giants like Nike and Reebok, independent monitoring remains a serious undertaking.
Last week both companies, along with Adidas-Salomon, Patagonia and Gear for Sports, were approved by the Fair Labor Association, an industry watchdog group began by the Clinton White House but now run independently, to participate in its global apparel and footwear monitoring efforts. Often the first to be fingered by labor and human rights groups for sweatshop violations, athletic companies are pouring more money into monitoring.
Nike and Reebok came under fire last month, after 850 workers at the Kukdong factory in Mexico staged a two-day strike, which resulted in massive layoffs. Both companies said they have enlisted external monitors, as well as their own staff, to get a read on the extent of the problems there.
With the effectiveness of the FLA’s new program remaining to be seen, athletic makers said they’ve been stepping up their own initiatives for months. However, National Labor Committee executive director Charles Kernaghan said that’s just not the case.
The FLA’s approval of Nike and Adidas into its new external monitoring program is really about providing a cover for the companies, Kernaghan said, because monitors routinely accompany company executives during factory visits and that can make factory management and employees defensive.
Last week’s decision by the FLA was premature and subsequently short-circuited the NLC’s momentum in exposing sweatshop conditions, “nonliving” wages and other overseas factory human rights violations, Kernaghan said.
“We had the strongest social movement in the world — as weak as it may have been,” he said. “Students, religious and labor activists were putting pressure on people and seeing results.”
Kernaghan did consent that Nike has made strides in recent years, but said more work needs to be done.
“What bothers me about Nike, Reebok and the others is that in some ways they could be maintaining the status quo or monitoring workers in a prison,” he said. “Any real monitoring has to have an element of education where people are free to learn their rights.”
In El Salvador, for example, female factory workers are subjected to mandatory pregnancy tests before they are hired. In addition, El Salvador’s 79,000 factory workers do not have one functioning union in any of the country’s 229 factories, he added.
“Workers are afraid,” Kernaghan said. “They don’t know their rights. In China, workers think a union is a breakfast meeting. They think overtime starts after midnight. They don’t know about the World Trade Organization or NAFTA.”
Athletic companies need “real crash courses in the lives of overseas workers to get a better sense of understanding,” Kernaghan said.
Such advancements as providing clean drinking water, improving ventilation and curtailing sexual harassment are no small tasks — especially for workers who are logging 12 or 13 hour days in those factories, Kernaghan said.
“Where it crashes to the ground is giving workers the right to unionize and paying them decent wages,” said Kernaghan, whose organization is partially funded by the apparel and textile union UNITE.
Human rights and labor rights activists, as well as religious leaders and students, need to be more involved with the monitoring process and the education of foreign workers, he said.
But Nike, whose executives readily point out that the brand is unfairly the poster boy for labor issues, is counting on the FLA to level the playing field for independent monitoring.
Amanda Tucker, senior manager of corporate responsibility at Nike, said, “There won’t be a huge difference from what the company checks now. What will change is reporting that information to the FLA to help establish a systematic approach to independent monitoring.”
Tucker declined to say what percent of overseas factories used by Nike are not in compliance with its Code of Conduct. Instead, Tucker, who worked for the International Labor Organization in Geneva prior to joining Nike two years ago, said more generally that, “Every factory that you go into around the world is not where they need it to be.
“It’s a long process identifying problems,” she said. “The hard part is to help factories remediate. A lot of people fly in and fly out just to expose problems.”
Nike now employs about 35 compliance officers in about a dozen countries, compared to 25 a year ago. At this point, additional hires have not been given the green light due to the “corporate allocation of funds,” Tucker said.
“We could have 200 people doing this work and it would still be challenging,” she said. “It’s a daunting task, even though we have quite a few people. We don’t own these factories. It’s a challenge to determine what the standards should be.
“At times, we do more like police work — I don’t like to use this term — but we go into factories and say what’s right and what’s not.”
Local groups are helping to distribute laminated cards imprinted with Nike’s Code of Conduct. The company has also developed a CD-ROM that explains the procedure, which workers in at least one factory can see after hours during a computer training program, Tucker said.
Reebok International, which was the first athletic company to adopt a code of conduct in 1992, is trying to use more internal and external sources to assess factory conditions, said Doug Cahn, vice president of human rights program.
With several hundred factories in Asia, Europe, Central and Latin America and the U.S., Reebok uses human rights and labor activists to check out its facilities. There is one monitor in Mexico, two in Indonesia, two in Thailand and three in China. In Asia, monitors visit sites twice a month, Cahn said. “It doesn’t mean we have solved all the problems with internal processes,” Cahn said.
While excessive overtime is an ongoing issue in apparel factories and one that Reebok is trying to correct, there are other matters the firm has improved, he said. Factories are cleaner, more water-based chemicals are being used, personal protective equipment is provided and ergonomically designed chairs are offered to workers.
Cahn also noted that Reebok’s three-year-old workers communication system provides factory employees with prepaid mailers, suggestion boxes and telephone contact information free from management’s watchful eyes.
With close to 1,000 contracted factories worldwide, Adidas-Salomon has conducted 35 audits in the past 12 months, according to Gregg Nebel, regional head of social and environmental compliance. A process started two years ago.
Under the FLA’s guidelines, manufacturers do not have to include monitors in remedial programs at factories. That condition may prompt Adidas to use more local organizations. The firm’s 27 inhouse monitors will continue to pitch in.
Nebel spent 250 days on the road last year. “You can’t understand a problem unless you get out and see it and hear it for yourself,” he said.