“To Fix Sweatshop Conditions in Factories, We Must Listen to Workers”


By Dara O'Rourke


NIKE'S ADMISSION of sweatshop conditions in its factories in Indonesia last week was surprising and significant for two reasons: First because of how bad the conditions were, and second because Nike owned up to them.


The abuses listed in Workers Voices, the Global Alliance report, will confirm what many critics of Nike have been arguing for years and what many consumers have feared about the clothes they buy: Working conditions remain extremely bad.


However, in our rush to condemn Nike for these conditions, we might miss the more important lessons of the story:


These problems are much bigger than just Nike. And, ironically, it is exactly through bringing workers' voices into these debates and creating systems of transparency and accountability - what this report takes a small step toward doing - that we will be able to begin working on improving conditions in the global workplace.


Make no mistake, the conditions inside these factories are harsh and abusive and, by Nike's own admission, ''troubling.''


Based on interviews with more than 4,000 workers in Indonesia, the report, which was funded almost exclusively by Nike, found widespread verbal and physical abuse, shockingly high rates of sexual harassment, forced overtime, denied sick leave, inadequate access to medical care, and two reports of worker deaths.


These conditions are completely unacceptable, but also all too common. Nike must be held accountable and clean up these factories. But these problems are not confined to Nike factories. In fact, the concept of a Nike factory for garments, just like our antiquated concept of an American company, means less and less in the global economy.


Nike's competitors are using these same garment factories to produce their products, often at the very same time.


So unfortunately, you can't just avoid purchasing Nike or anyone else's products and feel you are sweatshop-free.


The problem is not with individual factories or evil managers. The problem is a global production system that drives contractors to cut costs, increase productivity, and meet shorter and shorter delivery times, all of which further squeeze workers.


This system encourages highly mobile, fly-by-night, secretive, and completely unaccountable garment factories. This global system continues to lower standards and worsen conditions in factories in developing countries and in the thousands of sweatshops in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.


So how can we move from occasional exposes and media reports to a systematic process for monitoring and improving the garment industry, the toy and electronics industries, and many others?


In my view, the Global Alliance's methodology is flawed in a number of ways: Workers were interviewed on site without labor unions or nongovernmental organizations present. Nonetheless, the report ironically points us in the right direction for finding solutions - to the workers themselves.


This report is an effort by Nike to gather information from actual workers and publicly report on problems inside its factories.


Reebok issued a similar report on conditions inside two of its factories in Indonesia last year and was criticized by the press for the problems it found. But this is missing the point.


Any study that is credible will find problems in these factories. But finding problems is the first important and positive step.


One of the most critical steps we can take is to open these industries up to greater public (and market) scrutiny and accountability. We need to pull back the veil of secrecy these factories have hidden behind for so many years. And we need to create systems where workers and communities can speak in their own voices through their own independent organizations, so that we can hear directly from workers and communities impacted by our production.


More important than identifying specific problems (which must, of course, be resolved) is to open up this industry to transparent evaluation. Only when workers have a real voice and we can look systematically at normal operating conditions across companies and countries will we be able to identify the most serious problems in global supply chains and begin to improve them.


Admitting there is a problem may be the first step to recovery. Hearing workers' voices, establishing criteria for comparing factories internationally, and verifying problems and corrections through the participation of local nongovernmental organizations and unions are key steps in a long road toward improving global working conditions.


Dara O'Rourke is an assistant professor of environmental and labor policy in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.