A Victory over Nike: And a Win for Sweatshop Workers

Article excerpt

Consumers and workers of the world, unite - Just do it! If you do, you can affect the behavior of manufacturing giants such as Nike, for whom image is everything.

Nike Inc.'s announcement last month that it would raise the minimum age for its workers and impose American air quality standards on its plants overseas marks a breakthrough for American and international human rights campaigners who have argued that basic liberties shouldn't stop at the factory door. It turns out that public shaming and consumer pressure can have a mighty impact on mighty manufacturers.

Philip H. Knight, Nike's chairman and chief executive, was remarkably candid during a speech this week at the National Press Club in acknowledging how much damage the critics had done to his company's image.

"It has been said that Nike has single-handedly lowered the human rights standards for the sole purpose of maximizing profits," he said. "The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse. I truly believe that the American consumer does not want to buy products made in abusive conditions." Go for it, Phil.

The new commitments, Knight said - speaking at a moment when his company was flooding the airwaves with advertising around the National Basketball Association playoffs - reflect "who we are as a company."

There remains the small problem of living wages. "Sweatshops are known to the U.S. public as places where people work in miserable conditions for miserable wages," Medea Benjamin, director of Global Exchange, said in an interview. "Nike is addressing the miserable conditions, but a sweatshop is a sweatshop is a sweatshop unless you address miserable wages."

But Benjamin, whose San Francisco-based group has helped put labor rights on the human rights agenda, said the Nike moves were nonetheless significant. It's important, she said, that the company is accepting the principle that outside monitors should oversee its labor practices, and that it is agreeing to abide overseas by the environmental and safety standards set in American law. "If you can get Nike with enough pressure, you can get the whole industry," she said.

The Nike moves are a small step on a very long journey whose aim is to civilize the global economy. …