||Issue No. 137||24 May 2002|
An Aussie Icon
Interview: Just Done It?
Tribute: Lest We Forget
History: Solidarity Forever
Technology: Unblocking the Superhighway
International: Gloves Off
Unions: Out Of Work
Review: Strange Business
Poetry: The Lawyer's Lament
Satire: Government Mourns Loss Of Last Anzac
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Your Tools Page is Down
Big Dave Foster
Give Us a Click!
Will the Real Mark Latham Please Stand Up?
The Last Survivor
Not Hate Mail
Just Done It?
Interview with Peter Lewis
Nike is making a public statements that it's changed its ways. What's Nike Watch's response to this?
Well up until very recently we would have said that the company's basically been responding on a public relations basis. The changes they had made were pretty marginal, they hadn't addressed the key issues of union rights and wage levels. That's up until very recently. Very recently they've started to make some changes that look to us like a step forward.
The monitoring organisation that they're involved in has changed the way they operate. The organization is a joint operation between companies including Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Levis, Patagonia and some human rights groups in the US - including churches, lawyers committees, the National Consumers League and a couple of other groups. Up until now that institution has not been at all credible, the companies have chosen which monitors entered the factories; they paid the monitors to visit the factories; there's been no reports from individual factories only general reports to the company.
In April they announced some major changes. They bought in a new Executive Director who has a background in the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and has been working for the ILO for the past 15years doing factory audits. He and his staff are now going to be choosing the factory monitors, they are going to be paying them and there are going to be releasing reports for each factory. So for us, that looks like an important step forward, an important step towards the kind of demands we've been making. But it's very early days and we need to see how that's going to play out in practice before we formally make a public response praising them. It's also important to note that those changes in themselves aren't going to be enough to fix the problem.
Currently the Fair Labor Association only externally monitors 10 per cent of factories each year. So each Nike factory is only visited once every 10 years by external monitors. They are reviewing that and that may change. But even if it doubles and it's every five years you have still got the question of what happens if the factory tries to bust the union between the five-year period. So you need a really affective accessible complaint mechanism that workers can access immediately if union busting or serious labor abuses occur. Now that's under review, the sort of complaint mechanisms that are going to be available. But certainly the old system was very bureaucratic and wasn't at all accessible to workers.
What would you need to see for you to say Nike Watch has done its job it's time to move on to something else?
Well I don't know that we could ever say that, but certainly if there's a few things that for us would be a key indication that the companies are serious about these issues, they are:independence and transparency of monitoring; commitment to a living wage; complaint mechanism that workers can access; training for workers, so that they get education about what rights there are available under these systems; and finally; we want union involvement in these kind of programs.
The Unions in the US were initially involved in the Fair Labor Association but they pulled out in 1998, because the companies wouldn't agree to a credible system. If the Labor Association were going to change enough for the unions to get back involved, that to us would be a big sign that it was serious about the issue.
There is a border question, is it actually possibly for Global Capital to be ethical? Isn't it just a race to the cheapest free trade zone?
It has been a race to the cheapest free trade zone, but I don't think it necessarily has to be that way. The market are not made up of people, they're social constructions as much as they're economic constructions and what we hope, not immediately but in the next 10-20 years, is to start to build a big enough consumer activism and ethical investment activism to start creating economic incentives for companies to start to operate in a way that respects workers' rights. And industries like sportswear are good places to start because the company spends much more on building their reputation and brand than they do on labor costs.
Their average shoe which would sell for $80, $1 or $2 of that would be labor costs and up to $5-$6 would be marketing the brand, sponsorship. So with a company like Nike's you can damage their reputation and that's their most important asset. And if you can make it so that their reputation is dependant on having decent labor conditions than there is an economic incentive that goes beyond the increase in labour costs. So our argument is the way capitalism works, particularly the way brands are so prominent, is that we can start to change labor costs which are very much a small part in the overall costs change.
Nike's obviously an easy target because they have such a high profile, but how do you extend that sort of brand consciousness and consumerism beyond just Nike and Reebok?
That's obviously a big challenge. What we've been waiting for in this campaign is for some of the companies to take genuine steps forward so that we can start to distinguish between them. With these recent changes in the Fair Labor Association it looks like that's at least starting to happen. We can no longer say that those companies like Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Levis are exactly the same as companies who aren't involved in those sorts of projects.
That means we need to find the campaign needs to move to a new level and find a way of rewarding companies who make some progress and putting pressure on other companies to join them, while at the same time maintaining pressure for improvements to continue it.
There's a group called the Clean Clothes Campaign in Europe which is a network of 200 Unions, human rights groups and community groups and their looking at a project which they are going to possibly call "Human Rights Marathon". So they'll have a big consultation with human rights groups and unions around the world. They'll set up a bunch of criteria that they want companies to meet and the companies will get a certain number of steps along this marathon. Then they'll release yearly race updates. So if a company commits to a living wage and starts implementing it they might move 30 steps down the road, if they commit to respecting union rights and respond positively in favour of union rights they might get another 20 steps and so on.
So we're trying to get companies competing against each other and trying to build a constituency of consumers who will award companies who make some progress, while at the same time doing in depth research that shows that all the companies have a long way to go. That's the new direction we're looking at to try and keep pressure for more change and to broaden it out.
The big challenge though is to get people to make their consumer decisions based on that information. How do you even start to change that sort of behaviour, you're up against this multi-million dollar industry that's meant to get people to dictate the way they're going to consume - how do a bunch of human rights activists break through that?
I think the way information technology is changing, which obviously works good online if taken advantage of, is a powerful way of getting information out to people. A small example is this guy Jonah Peretti in the US who had an email exchange with Nike where he tried to get "sweatshop" emblazoned on his shoes. That was huge. He just emailed a friend who emailed a friend who emailed a friend. The Financial Review estimated 11 million people would've read it. He even appeared on US morning television debating Nike about it.
So the way people are connected by email and the Internet makes this kind of information very easy to determinate in a way it was impossible before. I think there is, certainly amongst a percentage of the population who are concerned about human rights already, a real demand for that kind of information and a demand for how they can use their consumer power and reflect things positively. Obviously it's only optimistically at 10-15% of the population who are in that category. But even that is insignificant enough to start affecting profit margin.
I guess one idea that you hear floated around that is something like a "no sweat" logo that has as much allure as the Nike "swoosh. Has there been any research or any experience into how affective that sort of strategy could be?
The problem is that most of the research is done by the companies because they're the ones with the money and what they say is that people care about these issues but not enough to change their buying patterns, not enough to spend a bit more money. There has been other research that suggests otherwise and that's been funded by NGOs. Basically, the test is going to be to get it happening and to see how people respond. Obviously FairWear is starting up this "no sweatshop" label for clothes produced in Australia and that's going to be a significant test for that kind of labelling. Internationally I think, I have reservations about a "no sweatshop" label for a goods produced anywhere in the world because a company like Nike looking at 900 suppliers it's very hard to say that all the factories are good. It only takes a couple of stories exposing shop conditions to undermine the whole credibility of the label.
So I'd prefer in terms of international context, the Marathon or Rating system which gives an idea as to the companies' progress and what steps they're taking rather than saying give me a stamp and say everything is made in good conditions. But the "no sweatshop" labels in terms of Australian production will be interesting.
As a community campaigner what's your evaluation of the performance of the Union movement in the anti-sweatshop campaigns?
I think in Australia the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union has been very supportive, we've worked closely with them on a couple of different campaigns, on worker tours and so on. At the international level I think unions follow rather than lead on this issue. I think there were pretty powerful and effective activism done by grassroots networks and quite small groups that unions were quite hesitant to get involved. But as the unions have seen how effective it's been in getting media coverage and mobilising people they have started to get much more involved.
So if you look in the US the union movement there has started to set up their own website "Behind the Label" with regular stories. They're trying to mobilise more people. They've just started to put resources into local trade union organisations in Indonesia so that they can document problems in their factories in a way that's going to be interesting for a few western audiences and all the audiences. So while the Union movement has been slow to respond to this issue they are increasingly getting involved and that's been really positive.
Well it really came out of more a political campus version in America didn't it? And it was seen as almost a challenge to the established Unions there?
That's not entirely true. A lot of the students that were involved in the student end of the movement had been part of the major project in the US that the AFL-CIO ran - internships for students in unions. A lot of those students were politicised by a program that was run by the mainstream union movement, but then they we saw these students themselves take the issue a lot further and a lot faster perhaps than the mainstream unions had been. The Nike campaign started in 1991 by this guy Jeff Ballenger who was working for the AFL-CIO, he was a bit of radical in the overall US labor movement and seen as a bit peripheral by some, but certainly he was operating within the movement when he started the campaign.
What about the response of Government, particularly labor governments in Australia. There seems to be a feeling that policing sweatshops is almost impossible in that they can move very quickly, outworkers are even harder. What could the Government be doing if it was really serious about dealing with the sweatshop industry at home and abroad?
Well at home, the NSW Department of Industrial Relations is announcing this week a major new strategy on outworkers. And my understanding is they're putting significant resources into increasing factory inspections, employing more inspectors that speak the languages that homeworkers speak, putting a lot more resources into policing, putting a lot more pressure on companies to be part of the kind of voluntary "no sweatshop" label scheme or else that's when the Government will introduce much more intrusive legislation. And from what I've heard from FairWear, although they haven't got everything they wanted, that has been an important step forward and a major kind of lobbying achievement over a number of years. So I think the steps that the Government are taking are positive.
In terms of an international level, the kind of things we were looking for is a kind of commitment to getting companies to agree to key labor standards but also enforcement of those labor standards. The Australian Government has indicated that they have no intention even exposing Australian companies who aren't doing that. And there needs to be a much more aggressive approach of funding research into how multinationals are operating overseas. Having surprise visits by independent monitors, publishing a report and setting up the kind of worker training and complaint mechanisms that are going to allow workers themselves to report on labor abuses.
Finally, looking into the crystal ball, if your campaign is successful, what's it going to be like in 20 years time? What sort of clothes are we going to be buying and were are we going to be buying them from?
In terms of where we are going to buy them from, I think a lot of them are still going to be bought from countries that are industrialising. And I think that that's not a bad thing. I think Indonesia and China and Vietnam are countries that desperately need employment and our hope is that those jobs will stay there but will become decent jobs with unionised workforces and those workforces will be part of development in those countries which means increased international economic activity and wealth for both them and us.
In terms of how they'll be produced, well as I said we hope they'll be produced by unionised workforces who negotiate collectively across boarders, who participate in decisions about how production occurs and is human rights are respected and get adequate leisure time so they don't have this kind of situation where they're forced to work 60-70 hours a week just to achieve a basic existence income instead of decent income where they can raise a family and be able to enjoy leisure time as well as work time.
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