Guest Post By Jim Keady-- Why I Cannot "Just Do It" On Nike And The TPP
One of the issues that has united people across the political spectrum in this campaign cycle is the fact that for the past three decades the United States has signed onto trade policies that have crushed middle class workers and only benefited the uber-wealthy and giant multinational corporations.
The most recent incarnation of these failed trade policies is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
While I agree with President Obama on a range of key issues (increasing access to healthcare, fighting to reverse climate change, etc.) on this issue we differ. I am particularly troubled that he pushed for fast-track authority for this deal at Nike’s headquarters one year ago.
To understand why this particular move by the President troubled me, let me give you the quick history of my 16 years working on the Nike sweatshop issue in Southeast Asia.
1. In 1997 I was a graduate assistant soccer coach at St. John's University, studying Theology and coaching with the NCAA Division One defending National Champions.
2. I started writing a paper about Nike's labor practices in light of Catholic Social Teaching and found Nike to be in violation of everything we stood for at St. John's.
3. While I was in the midst of learning about Nike's sweatshop abuses, the St. John's University Athletic Department entered into negotiations with Nike for a flagship endorsement deal that would require all coaches and athletes to wear Nike products 24-7.
4. I took a stand and refused to wear Nike's products as part of the $3.5 million dollar endorsement deal.
5. I was given an ultimatum by my boss, “Wear Nike and drop this issue… or resign.”
6. I resigned in protest.
7. My resignation and lawsuit that I filed against St. John’s and Nike exploded in the media and I was considered an instant expert on the sweatshop issue. I began being invited to speak on college campuses. My critics told me I didn’t know what I was talking about.
8. I wanted to prove my critics wrong, so in the summer of 2000, I moved to Indonesia and lived in a factory workers’ slum trying to survive on a Nike sweatshop wage of $1.25 a day. I lost 25lbs in one month while sleeping on a cement floor in a rat and cockroach infested neighborhood.
9. I met the mostly young women workers who made the gear I wore for my entire life and I promised them that I would go home and advocate for them.
10. I have spent a good part of the past 16 years fighting for better wages and working conditions for Nike’s workers. (If you want to learn what I was up to, google “Jim Keady, Nike, and sweatshops.”)
Sometimes people ask, “Why have you focused so much energy on this issue?”
It is imperative that we expose what Nike is doing overseas for two reasons. First, their factory workers are human beings just like us and as such deserve our solidarity and support. Second, when companies like Nike engage in the “race to the bottom” on wages, working conditions and workers’ rights to organize overseas, it puts a downward pressure on wages, working conditions and workers’ rights to organize here in the United States. How can American workers be expected to compete with workers in developing countries where there are repressive governments who allow people to be paid poverty wages when the companies they are producing for (like Nike) are making billions in profits?
So, that's why I took issue with the President holding up Nike as a model of global trade and why I adamantly disagree with him on his belief that the TPP will be a benefit to workers here and abroad. Since the President used them as the example, let's continue to consider Nike as we examine some of the problems with this trade deal.
In Indonesia alone, Nike has 168,000 workers who are paid a paltry $212 a month. Nike has busted worker unions, refused to pay even the minimum wage, has verbally and physically threatened workers for exercising their fundamental right to freely associate, and they have cheated workers of millions of dollars in overtime pay. Along with the labor rights violations, Nike has also been dumping and burning scrap shoe rubber in Indonesian villages for 25 years – pumping toxins and carcinogens into the air, water, and soil.
In Malaysia, Nike has been found guilty of employing thousands of illegally trafficked workers. These workers had their passports confiscated to prevent them running away to get help or to find a better job. For years, Nike turned a blind eye on this issue until we brought the matter to prime-time TV and forced them to address it.
In Vietnam, the situation is even worse. This is important in the current political context because Vietnam is seen as the linchpin of the TPP deal and Nike is the largest private employer in Vietnam with 330,000 workers. Here, workers are paid $132 per month. Because of Nike’s poverty wage, many workers cannot afford their basic needs, most distressingly, childcare. They are forced to leave their babies and young children with grandparents in their home villages while they migrate to cities to work. If they are lucky, they see their children a few times a year. Along with poor wages, workers in Vietnam deal with verbal abuse, inhuman production quotas, and one worker reported that because of restrictions on the use of toilets at work, a co-worker wet her pants on the production line despite repeated requests to her supervisor for a bathroom break.
This is why Nike should not be held up by the President as a model for trade and why the TPP deal needs a lot of work if it is going to protect the basic rights of workers both internationally and in the United States.
With previous trade agreements, US Administrations have not promptly acted when trading partners do not live up to their promises on labor standards. Not only does this lead to violations of the rights of workers in those countries, it also creates the uneven playing field that leads to the loss of hundreds of thousands of good-paying American jobs.
What do we need to do?
We need to renegotiate all of our multi-lateral trade deals and demand strict protections for labor and the environment.
Second, we must establish legislation that will force the Administration's hand in enforcing these conditions on labor standards and protecting the environment. These cannot be “best efforts” initiatives. These need to be laid out as clear and measurable objectives; there must be monitoring mechanisms to ensure compliance; and there must be harsh penalties for violations.
One legislative initiative could create a legal requirement that companies operating overseas in a TPP country must pay no lower than that country's living wage and must observe the ILO's core labor standards regardless of whether that country has ratified them. In Vietnam for example, this would mean that Nike could not fire striking workers and their workers’ wages would increase by about 50%-- dramatically improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of working families. For those concerned about the impact of this on the cost of your Nike sneakers, it would add a whopping $2 to the price tag on your Jordans.
It is important to note that we have only thus far discussed the impacts of the TPP on wages and working conditions. Along with the TPP’s promotion of economic and labor injustices, this deal will also allow for a significant amount of national sovereignty to be lost. It will give foreign corporations the right to sue the United States government in ways that we have never seen to date. International corporate tribunals will supersede U.S. law and will undermine labor, environmental and health and safety protections in the pursuit of profits for foreign companies.
This is why it is imperative that the TPP be stopped and this is why it is imperative that the United States Congress take action and negotiate a trade deals that truly promote freedom, prosperity and justice for all and not just for the multinational corporations and their executive elites. It is time that the people, through their elected officials, had a voice in shaping the landscape of global trade. Anything short of this is un-American.
(Trung Doan, Director of VietLabor, the only independent labor organization in Vietnam, contributed to this piece)
Jim Keady is on Blue America's Bernie Congress Act Blue page. You can get to it-- and contribute to his grassroots efforts to oust billionaire Christie-crony Tom MacArthur-- by tapping on the thermometer below: