Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fighting Sweatshops, Recession or No Recession

In the midst of a global recession, isn’t it time to suspend campaigns against sweatshops? Not at all, says Jim Ready, a 10-year veteran in the struggle for worker rights.

In fact, he has intensified his anti- sweatshop campaign, Team Sweat, with new initiatives that include:
· Inserting an ad on Facebook that is attracting a thousand hits a day;
· Launching a new Weblog called Team Sweat.
· Working on a documentary that includes an interview with Nobelist Joseph Stiglttz.
· Planning a May Day demonstration in New York City.

That’s on top of work schedule already heavy with varied activities, all focused on Nike, the No. 1 apparel distributor in the world, which has its many wares produced by 800,000 workers in 700 factories in 52 countries throughout the world.

Keady can rattle off Nike statistics because he himself is a Nike shareholder and attended Nike’s shareholder meeting in Oregon in September last year. During the meeting he attempted to put on the record Nike's failure to pay a living wage, but management edited out most of the content of Ready's statement/query to the board of directors.

After the official meeting, Keady had a brief conversation with Mark Parker, CEO of Nike Inc., followed by a three-hour meeting with five members of Nike’s executive team. According to his Web report, he pushed hard on two key issues:

1. The current wages paid to Nike’s workers in Indonesia are not enough for these workers to meet their basic living needs. He based this claim partly on his own personal experience in 2000, when he and a colleague lived on $1 a day for two months. (See “Learning How You Survive on $1 a day.")

2. The ultimate goal of the campaign is to have Nike’s Indonesia workers become actual Nike employees, rather than subtracted workers.

There was a “lively discussion” covering a lot of ground, but not the issue of turning subcontracted workers into employees, an ideal that the executives dismissed by ignoring it. One result from that give-and-take was what Keady regarded as a commitment that members of Nike’s executive team would, sometime in the next months, visit Nike plants in Indonesia with Keady to hear Nike workers themselves make the case for increasing wages and holding negotiations for a collective bargaining contract. So far that joint inquiry has not taken place, although it may in July, when Keady will making be his latest fact-finding visit to Indonesia, where Nike still employs some 110,000 workers.

Keady remains optimistic. “We have momentum,” he says, in the context of his 10- year campaign.

In a phone conversation with Keady today, I wondered what motivates him to keep on. “A big part of it is my faith,” he says. He is grounded in a liberation theology that values working toward the kingdom of God in the here and now, through our daily work.

Keady is also energized by the sessions he has with groups of college students and others, 20 to 40 of them a year. These are interactive, starting with asking people to check the label of origin on the clothes they wear, followed by a multi-media presentation depicting the plight of the foreign workers, mostly young female, who make those clothes.

He finds that the typical audience is shocked by the facts. At the end of his most recent session, at Canisius College in Buffalo, he got a standing ovation at the end, and dozens of students approached him afterwards, wanting to get involved.

Those sessions are stimulating in another way. He hears challenging questions, the most recent centering on the recession and whether having a sweatshop job isn't better than having no job at all. He has thought through an insightful response. Its most telling part, in a nutshell, goes like this: Paying a living wage to those still working would have little effect on Nike’s revenues ($18,600,000,000 in 2008) and would aid the nation’s economic recovery by its multiplier effect throughout the economy.

The either/or question, Isn’t a sweatshop job better than no job at all?, has a seductive appeal, I find. Certainly, for an unemployed person (and dependents) a sweatshop job is better than no job, at least in the abstract, but not always in real life. What if the sweatshop is rife with sexual abuse? Or if sweatshop conditions endanger your health and safety?

Keady points out that Catholic social teaching is clear about this type of "choice." "Church teaching," he insists, "tells us that if a person, out of fear or desperation, accepts working conditions that they would not normally accept, then that is an injustice. If it is an injustice, then people of faith have a moral obligation to fight to end that injustice."

The either/or choice also has a policy dimension. Even if economic conditions are so bad that many persons have a sweatshop job as their only choice, should that grim reality determine the policies of governments and non-governmental groups?

That’s a common good issue, different from the issue of individual good. There is a difference, often slighted. Women of 55 with abusive husbands may have no choice except to stay married, but that should not require abandoning public or private efforts to end wife abuse.

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1 comment:

Real Estate in Toronto said...

Amazing article, it's so good to see someone fighting and not giving up on their goals. Mr. Keady is a true hero. I just wish there were more active people like him. Seems cruel to me that people can be treated in such horrible ways in other countries.

Take care, Elli