Sat, Jul 16, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Nike deflects criticism over worker abuse claims in Indonesia

By Niniek Karmini and Stephen Wright  /  AP, SUKABUMI and JAKARTA, INDONESIA

Workers making Converse sneakers in Indonesia say supervisors throw shoes at them, slap them in the face and call them dogs and pigs. Nike, the brand’s owner, admits that such abuse has occurred among the contractors that make its hip high-tops, but says there was little it could do to stop it.

Dozens of workers interviewed by The Associated Press (AP) and a document released by Nike show that the footwear and athletic apparel giant has far to go to meet the standards it set for itself a decade ago to end its reliance on sweatshop labor.

Nike says nearly two-thirds of the factories that make Converse products fail to meet its standards for contract manufacturers, but insists it cannot address many of those problems because many factories operate under contracts that were set before Nike bought Converse in 2003.

That does not appear to explain abuses that workers allege at the Taiwan-based Pou Chen Group (寶成國際集團) factory in Sukabumi, about 100km from Jakarta: It didn’t start making Converse products until four years after Nike bought Converse. One worker said she was kicked by a supervisor last year after making a mistake while cutting rubber for soles.

“We’re powerless,” said the woman, who like several others interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals. “Our only choice is to stay and suffer, or speak out and be fired.”

The 10,000 mostly female workers at the Taiwanese-operated Pou Chen plant make about US$0.50 an hour. That’s enough for food and bunkhouse-type lodging, but little else. Some workers interviewed by the AP in March and April described being hit or scratched in the arm — one man until he bled. Others said they were fired after filing complaints.

“They throw shoes and other things at us” a 23-year-old woman in the embroidery division said. “They growl and slap us when they get angry. “It’s part of our daily bread.”

Mira Agustina, 30, said she was fired in 2009 for taking sick leave, even though she produced a doctor’s note.

“It was a horrible job,” she said. “Our bosses pointed their feet at us, calling us names like dog, pig or monkey.”

All are major insults to Muslims. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

At the PT Amara Footwear factory located just outside Jakarta, where another Taiwanese contractor makes Converse shoes, a supervisor ordered six female workers to stand in the blazing sun after they failed to meet their target of completing 60 dozen pairs of shoes on time.

“They were crying and allowed to continue their job only after two hours under the sun,” said Ujang Suhendi, 47, a worker at a warehouse in the factory.

The women’s supervisor received a warning letter for the May incident after complaints from unionized workers.

The company’s own inquiries also found workers at the two factories were subjected to “serious and egregious” physical and verbal abuse, including the punishment of forcing workers to stand in the sun, said Hannah Jones, a Nike executive who oversees the company’s efforts to improve working conditions.

“We do see other issues of that similar nature coming up across the supply chain, but not on a frequent level,” she said. “We see issues of working conditions on a less egregious nature across the board.”

Nike, which came under heavy criticism a decade ago for its use of foreign sweatshops and child labor, has taken steps since then to improve conditions at its 1,000 overseas factories. However, the progress it has made at factories producing gear with its premier “swoosh” logo is not fully reflected in those making Converse products.

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