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Commentary: Nike Hasn't Scrubbed Its Image Yet

News: Analysis & Commentary: COMMENTARY


Nike Inc. must have hoped that hiring a dignitary like Andrew Young--the former civil-rights leader, mayor of Atlanta, and U.S. ambassador to the U.N--would at least quiet some of its labor-activist critics. But even before Young released his long-awaited report on conditions at Nike's overseas plants on June 24, human-rights groups were crying foul.

Their main beef is a valid one: The report all but ignores what may be the most important concern of Nike's foreign workers--wages. Young says he deliberately avoided the topic because he wasn't qualified to assess pay in a global economy. And he says it's unfair to single out the $9 billion company when it pays workers just as much as rivals do. "The minimum standards have to be put in place by the governments involved," says Young, who wrote the 75-page report with his Atlanta consulting firm, GoodWorks International LLC. "I don't know that any one company can do that."

UNDERMINE. Skirting the wage issue undermines a report that could have put to rest charges of worker abuses and systemic problems. "We were hoping that Andrew Young would come out with something significant," says Medea Benjamin, director of the human-rights group Global Exchange in San Francisco. "But this report is meaningless."

At Nike's expense, Young spent 15 days in March and April touring 12 factories in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. He says Nike let him go anywhere he wanted and speak with any worker he chose--but he admits that Nike officials served as interpreters for most of his interviews.

In the end, he said, he saw no evidence of "systematic abuse or mistreatment" of workers. "I was expecting to see a far worse situation," says Young, who will only reveal that his pay was less than his usual fee for a speech.

Young didn't let Nike off completely. For example, he said the Beaverton (Ore.) athletic-shoe maker needs to teach workers better about their rights and implement a third-party monitoring system. But these recommendations, which Nike vows to implement, seem inconsequential unaccompanied by a discussion of wages. Critics say Nike pays workers below subsistence levels and far less than other U.S. companies in Asia, such as Coca-Cola, Gillette, and Goodyear.

Nike contends it pays workers well--and no less than its rivals do. And it says its foes don't give Nike credit for its efforts to improve workplace conditions. "There's no way any report would convince the human-rights groups, who are saying that Andrew Young has been bought, of something other than their biased beliefs," says Lindsay D. Stewart, Nike's vice-president of law and corporate affairs. Still, Nike might have stood a better chance if Young had addressed all the issues on the table.By Linda HimelsteinReturn to top


What Andy Young Found

-- Factories that produce Nike goods are "clean, organized, adequately ventilated, and well-lit"

-- No evidence of a "pattern of widespread or systematic abuse or mistreatment of workers"

-- Workers don't know enough about their rights or about Nike's own code of conduct

-- Few factory managers speak the local language, which inhibits workers from lodging complaints or grievances

-- Independent monitoring is needed because factories are controlled by absentee owners and Nike has too few supervisors on siteReturn to top

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