Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. II, No. 5: April 7, 1997 

Nike on the Spot, Again

Nike is taking some bad public relations hits. It is likely to take even more, given the nature of its system of contracting out production to far-away factories.

The revelations in a CBS "48 Hours" broadcast titled "Just Do It--Or Else" last October were bad enough. That program documented a series of abuses at a Nike plant in Vietnam. Among other things, the Korean supervisors did not hesitate to use physical punishment to discipline workers. Fifteen of them received blows on the head for making mistakes in stitching Nike shoes. Forty-five others were forced to kneel on the ground for 25 minutes with their hands in the air. Another woman's mouth was taped shut for "talking during working hours." (For more details, check the Nov. 9 Human Rights for Workers bulletin, "Warning to Nike Workers: Do It--Or Else.")

As CBS' Roberta Baskin reported at that time, Nike was taking steps to make sure that such abuses would not happen again. But they have.

This time an independent investigator, a Vietnamese-American businessman named Thuyen Nguyen, who flew to Vietnam in March at Nike's invitation, came back with a detailed indictment of labor practices at Nike's five plants. Unlike the typical investigator, Nguyen interviewed workers away from company officials. "I cannot describe to you these women's sense of desperation," he wrote in his report. "Many of them told me they had lost weight since coming to work at the Nike factories. They complained of being tired all the time...[because of working] ten to 12 hour days, six or seven days a week. But the real problem is the pace of their work: they are forced to meet very high quotas....There is also a lot of stress, stress from fear of corporal punishment, stress from enduring daily indignities, and stress from the fear of sexual harrasment."

Nguyen reported that one Nike manager forced 56 women to run around the plant in the hot sun as punishment for wearing outdoor shoes inside the factory . Twelve fainted and had to be taken to a hospital emergency room. That incident, widely reported in the Vietnamese press, happened on March 8, International Women's Day, when many employers in Vietnam give their female workers flowers and other gifts.

"It's unconscionable," Nguyen said at a press conference in New York on March 27. "Nike has zero tolerance for poorly made shoes; it should have zero tolerance for physical abuse, humiliation, and sexual abuse of its workers."

It May Be Worse in 'Satan's Factory'

"I asked the old man [in a remote rural area of Indonesia] where I could find women who worked for Nike. He replied that they had not returned since leaving at 4 a.m. the previous morning. I was puzzled, and he explained that all the factory workers worked for Feng Tay (Nike), and I had very little chance of seeing them, as their families rarely saw them. He said the women from Nike were called "walking ghosts who work in Satan's factory."
With those words, Peter Hancock, a researcher from Edith Cowan University in Australia, introduced a 16-page report based on extensive interviews with workers in and around Banjaran, a small but rapidly industrializing region in West Java. He found that among the many foreign ventures there producing garments, shoes, and other goods for export, one "stood apart from the a joint venture with the Taiwanese firm Fengtay." The Nike plant, which employs 7,000 Indonesians, mostly women, "rates the lowest in terms of treatment of workers on overtime wages, working conditions, the non-payhment of legal working benefits (sick leave, menstrual leave, bonuses, etc.), [and the highest in] staff turnover."

Among the specific findings in Hancock's just-released report:

Usually overlooked by the casual visitor is the fear that pervades life at an establishment like Feng Tay. In Hancock's words:
"Many people made it clear they were extremely scared after speaking with me about Feng Tay. They were concerned about possible reprisals from the factory and from local millitary authorities, who commonly intervene in industrial disputes, usually at the request of factory management. All were assured confidentiality. Traceable records were completely disguised and later destroyed before I left the region."
(For more information on Nike's on-going labor problems, see the Web page at

Looking Beyond Specific Scandals

What is the context of these scandals? Here are a few facts. There is a big disconnect between the vast potential of the global economy and what it does for ordinary workers. Finding solutions to these new global realities is very difficult but not impossible; it just requires some hard thinking and some hard decisions. Where are the leaders with the vision to take up the challenge?  

Subsidizing China's Oppression: a Letter to the Times

Under the title "Subsidized Oppression?" the New York Times on February 21 published a letter of mine praising the columns of A. M. Rosenthal dealing with religious persecution in China. Here is the full text of my letter as written, including deletions made by a Times copy editor.
Thank the Lord for A.M. Rosenthal! His is a rare voice who dares ask questions like: "Why are Western democracies reacting so passively--or not at all"--to the persecution of Christians by China and other countries? "Why has there been no powerful U.S. constituency for persecuted Christians?"

As a student in a Catholic high school, a member of a Catholic parish, and a reader of the Catholic press in the 1930s, I was inspired with deep concern for Christians persecuted by the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union. Though in those days some said we could do business with Moscow (and with Hitler), the leadership of this country--from both church and state--spoke up loud and clear, and eventually backed up their words with deeds.

Like Mr. Rosenthal, I find today's silence utterly incomprehensible. Can it be because we are that anxious to make sure that Motorola can keep marketing its cellular telephones to China's version of the SS? Can it be because Vice President Gore and President Clinton are that anxious for red carpet treatment in Beijing?

It is true that the U.S. was slow in recognizing the horrors of the Soviet gulag and Hitler's concentration camps. But at least we did not subsidize them, as we are now doing by purchasing goods made in the laogai (to use Harry Wu's term for China's concentration camps), to which Beijing sentences Bishops, priests, ministers, and lay people whose only crime is to seek freedom of worship.

Reston, Va., Feb.14, 1997


Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
(Send e-mail)

Bulletin No. II-5: April 7, 1997


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