APSN Banner

Labor protests continue at Nike factories

Labor Alerts - May 1, 1997

The ink was barely dry on the Presidential task force agreement on sweatshops when new labor protests erupted because of inadequate pay at Nike factories. On April 22 and then again on April 25, 10,000 workers went on strike at a Nike factory in Indonesia. During the same week, 1,300 workers went on strike at a Nike factory in Vietnam. Nike's workers have yet to benefit from the task force agreement. It is imperative to keep up the pressure with the Nike campaign.

Wildcat strikes such as the two recent uprisings at the PT HASI plant in Indonesia are not usual at Nike factories in that country. What is new is that the mainstream media are now reporting these events. Media coverage gives the striking workers a slightly greater measure of security than they previously have enjoyed. Nike knows that the world is watching.

The second round of protests at the PT HASI plant was reported to involve some destruction of property. It is likely that provocation by the military touched off such activity. Whatever the facts of this particular situation, we should keep in mind that any labor activity in Indonesia takes place in a context of severe repression. Independent unions are outlawed in Indonesia. Independent union leader Dita Sari was sentenced to 6 years in prison on the same day that the workers marched. Independent union leader Muchtar Pakpahan is on trial for his life. With so few viable options, Nike workers can resort only to spontaneous, wildcat actions when their level of frustration becomes unendurable. If destruction of property sometimes is involved, the shame is entirely on Nike.

The most controversial point in the Presidential task force agreement is the standard for wages. The agreement accepts the legal minimum wage or prevailing industry wage (whichever is higher). It is widely acknowledged that, in most countries where the apparel industry produces, the legal minimum wage does not constitute a living wage. Many governments keep the legal minimum unrealistically low in order to attract foreign investment by companies such as those of the apparel industry. To accept the legal minimum as the standard is to require the industry to "comply" with the unacceptable rate which its own outsourcing practices have created.

The issue in these disputes is NOT that Nike cannot keep its contractors under control. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite. Huge multinational corporations such as Nike exercise ultimate control over labor conditions by paying an insufficient rate per item to their contractors. Given what Nike pays its contractors per shoe, those shoes can be made ONLY under sweatshop conditions.

Nike criticised Global Exchange for its press release based on an April 23 account of the strike printed in the Jakarta Post. Thuyen Nguyen, whose accounts of Nike labor abuses in Vietnam were widely reported by the media last month, has observed that Nike was always quick to try to discredit his reports by quibbling over details while ignoring the well-substantiated larger picture of abuse.