Nike reports offer different images of labor conditions

Part Two of Two

College Press Service

Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods entice countless armchair athletes with those three magic words: "Just do it."

College students nationwide, meanwhile, are debating whether the large shoe manufacturer, Nike, is doing what it says when it boasts that it maintains model working conditions at its factories in Southeast Asia, where the majority of its shoes are produced.

For years, Nike has been the object of intense media scrutiny concerning the workplace conditions in its Asian factories - referred to by critics as "sweatshops." Labor and human rights groups have accused Nike of forcing young women to toil in noxious surroundings, under the threat of corporal punishment, for far less than a living wage. Nike officials have refuted such allegations and have said the company provides over 500,000 jobs in developing nations.

A recently released study of workers' spending patterns in Vietnam and Indonesia, conducted by five MBA candidates at Dartmouth College's Amos Tuck School of Business concluded that Nike does not pay below the governments' mandated minimum wage, and that wages for Nike factory workers are often used to supplement existing income.

Students at universities such as Duke, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Penn State, are questioning their schools' contracts with Nike, which provides athletic teams with sponsorship funds and apparel.

Nike representatives say they require factory contractors to follow a strict code of conduct, which prohibits child labor, requires workers be paid a fair wage and imposes caps on the days and hours a worker can be required to work.

"We understand that we're emblematic in the larger debate about free trade and global manufacturing, and that we're a target because of our high visibility and market share," said Nike spokesman Vada Manager.

The Dartmouth graduate students say the Nike factories do seem to provide their workers a chance to earn a better living.

"We felt overall, upon visiting the factories, that these jobs provided upward mobility for workers," said Derek Calzini, a member of the student team that did research in Indonesia.

The student researchers, who received monetary support from Nike for only air travel and hotel accommodations, contend their study is objective and unbiased. Dartmouth students have done similar studies for other global companies such as Disney, Motorola and Hewlett Packard.

Meanwhile, an inspection report prepared in January by Ernst & Young for internal use at Nike reported that workers at a factory near Ho Chi Minh City were exposed to carcinogens that exceeded the local standards by 177 times in parts of the plant, and that 77 percent of the workers suffered respiratory problems.

The report also said employees at the site were forced to work 65 hours a week - far more than allowed by Vietnamese law.

The release of the report, which was made available to The New York Times and several other publications, prompted Nike to call a Nov. 7 press conference to address its contents. Manager said the company had carried out a plan to improve working conditions since the report was issued.

"There's a growing body of documentation that indicates that Nike workers earn superior wages and manufacture products in superior conditions," he said.

Trim Bissell, national coordinator for the Campaign for Labor Rights, a group that mobilizes support for anti-Nike activities across the United States and Canada through newsletters, the Internet and protest rallies, says Nike's reports aren't credible.

Bissell pointed out that Nike released the Dartmouth study right before his group had planned a large protest. He said that Nike "became increasingly nervous" before the event.

"In mid-October, 6,000 Indonesian workers went on strike," he added. "Now, I ask you, who do you believe: 6,000 Indonesians or five college students who say they have money to buy phones, motorbikes and VCRs?"

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