Nike billionaire Knight irked by UofO stand on worker rights

EUGENE - Days after the University of Oregon joined the Workers' Rights Consortium (WRC) - a coalition of universities and labor groups that monitors working conditions in overseas factories that make university-licensed apparel - billionaire alumnus Phil Knight, chairman of the Nike sportswear empire, announced that he would no longer contribute to the university financially.

Knight is the university's largest single donor, having donated more than $50 million in the past decade alone. He was expected to give several million dollars for the renovation and expansion of Autzen Stadium.

Knight was upset because UofO President Dave Frohnmayer didn't consult with him before joining the group.

The WRC was developed by United Students Against Sweatshops in collaboration with human rights and labor organizations in the U.S. and other apparel-producing regions to provide college and university members with information about working conditions in foreign countries.

Currently 44 colleges and universities are members, including Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Wisconsin, and the University of North Carolina.

The New York Times calls the student anti-sweatshop movement "the biggest surge in campus activism in nearly two decades."

Last month the Oregon AFL-CIO joined students at UofO for a National Day of Action for Student-Labor Solidarity, where rallygoers pressed Frohnmayer to join the WRC. Student activists, faculty and administrators had voted to join the coalition last year. After the rally, more than two dozen students were arrested after occupying the administration building waiting for Frohnmayer to sign the document.

Knight, in a written statement, said the WRC has unrealistic wage expectations and unfairly blocks industry from participating in monitoring. He said that because the AFL-CIO is one of the consortium's key supporters, the group's "main" and "misguided" aim must be to pull foreign apparel manufacturing jobs back to U.S. factories.

"These students are showing the kind of heart and spunk that Nike lionizes in its commercials," responded Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. "These students (and faculty) at the UofO are asking a question that Phil Knight doesn't want to answer - 'what's behind the swoosh we're wearing?' He can rant and rave and throw a tantrum at his alma mater all he wants, but that's a question he's going to have to answer."

Licensed apparel that Nike makes for the UofO is made in Bangladesh, Canada, China, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Korea, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and the United States.

The university garners about $300,000 a year from the sale of the merchandise bearing its fighting duck logo and name.

Nike and Knight favor another group, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), to monitor sweatshop labor. Businesses largely support the FLA because it gives more leeway to manufacturers, allowing them a greater say in how monitoring is carried out and putting limits on the release of inspection results.

The FLA also gives businesses strong representation on its board.

The WRC currently doesn't have corporate representatives on its board and intends to keep corporations at arm's length, conducting surprise inspections with independent monitors and releasing the results of its inspections.

In an op-ed piece published in the Oregonian April 26, Knight said that in recent years Nike has raised wages for Indonesian footwear workers by more than 70 percent, raised the minimum age requirement for workers to an industry-high 18 years old, improved factory air quality consistent with OSHA guidelines, and set up loan and continuing education programs for workers.

But a new report on working conditions at Nike production facilities in Asia directly contradict Knight's claims.

The detailed report, "Sweatshops Behind the Swoosh," was released April 25 by Press For Change, a coalition that includes the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), the National Labor Committee, the People of Faith Network, Global Exchange and the Resource Center of the Americas.

In the fall of 1999 an Indonesian human rights organization interviewed 3,500 workers in Nike contractor factories in Indonesia about their pay and working conditions. The survey, conducted by Indonesia's Urban Community Mission, found the most common complaint was being forced to work excessive overtime - more than 72 hours per week during peak periods. Nike's code of conduct calls for work hours limited to 60 hours.

The second most serious complaint cited by footwear workers was low wages. The vast majority said their basic wages at the time of the survey were between $33-$39 per month - about 16 to19 cents an hour. Nike apparel workers interviewed earned less than the equivalent of $33 per month. That is 25 percent less than what even Nike says that it takes to meet one person's minimum physical needs, the report said.

The cost of living in Indonesia has skyrocketed and Nike contractors' increases in the nominal wage have not been adequate to account for inflation, the report said. Basic inflation has gone up 83 percent., with food prices up 108 percent and clothing costs up 117 percent.

Fifty-seven percent of Nike athletic shoe workers and 59 percent of Nike clothing workers reported that they had seen workers subjected to cruel treatment by their supervisors, including having their ears pulled, being pinched or slapped, being forced to run around the factory or having to stand for hours in factory yards (known as "being dried in the sun"), the report said.

May 5, 2000 issue

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