Friday, February 23, 2001

A Mexican factory accused of denying its workers the right to organize an independent labor union reinstated strike leaders this week under pressure from sporting-goods giant Nike and several U.S. universities.

The effort by Nike, which labor-rights groups hope will lead to regular attention by U.S. corporations to conditions in factories abroad, marked the first time Nike has intervened in a labor dispute at the factory of one of its contractors.

“Though it took Nike time to jack up the pressure to appropriate levels, it has spoken out from the beginning in this case,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an association of universities that have banded together to fight overseas sweatshop labor, primarily through their business relationships with major U.S. companies.

Partly as a result of complaints from institutions including the University of Michigan, Boston College, Georgetown University and the University of North Carolina, Nike urged executives at the Kukdong International Mexico plant in Atlixco to permit workers to choose their own union.

They also called on the company, a South Korean conglomerate that produces sportswear with university logos under a contract with Nike, to grant severance pay to any workers who were fired as a result of the work stoppage.

“We made that explicitly clear to the management and to Mexican authorities,” said Nike spokesman Vada Manager.

Yesterday, Nike received further evidence that conditions in many factories remain deplorable. A study commissioned by the company found that 30 percent of workers at plants in Indonesia have experienced abuse from managers, including sexual harassment.

The study, based on interviews with 4,450 of some 54,000 employees at Nike contract factories in Indonesia, was conducted by the Baltimore-based Global Alliance for Workers and Communities, a research group that includes Nike, the World Bank and nongovernmental organizations.

Nike spokeswoman Maria Eitel said the study demonstrates the need for the company to keep up the pressure on its contractors to improve labor conditions.

“The findings were disturbing and troubling to us,” she said.

Late last year, workers at the Mexican factory began agitating for different union representation, which is provided by the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants.

The confederation, which many workers accused of ignoring bad conditions in the factory, has close ties with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which last year lost its 80-year hold on the Mexican presidency with the election of Vicente Fox.

The factory is owned by a South Korean conglomerate, which also owns plants in China, Indonesia and Bangladesh. U.S. universities have long-term agreements with Nike to produce apparel for them.

By the beginning of the year, roughly 850 of the plant’s 900 workers had gone on strike and the five leaders of the strike had been fired. Local police attempted to break up the strike, leading several colleges to ask Nike to intervene on behalf of the factory laborers.

“We urge you, as our long-standing partners, to do everything possible to bring about an immediate resolution so that these workers can return to work,” the University of Michigan wrote Nike on Jan. 30.

Nike, both before and after the universities complained, made its case to the factory’s management and to the Mexican government, Mr. Manager said. This week, two of the leaders of the strike and other employees were able to return to work.

“Right now we have substantial cause for optimism,” Mr. Nova said. “We’re seeing a vastly improved attitude on the part of factory owners towards labor.”

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