Consumers and workers of the world, unite -- Just do it! If you do, you can affect the behavior of manufacturing giants such as Nike, for whom image is everything.
Nike Inc.'s announcement this week that it would raise the minimum age for its workers and impose American air-quality standards on its plants overseas marks a breakthrough for American and international human rights campaigners who have argued that basic liberties shouldn't stop at the factory door. It turns out that public shaming and consumer pressure can have a mighty impact on mighty manufacturers.
Philip H. Knight, Nike's chairman and chief executive, was remarkably candid during a speech this week at the National Press Club in acknowledging how much damage the critics had done to his company's image.
"It has been said that Nike has single-handedly lowered the human rights standards for the sole purpose of maximizing profits," he said. "The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse. I truly believe that the American consumer does not want to buy products made in abusive conditions." Go for it, Phil.
The new commitments, Knight said -- speaking at a moment when his company is flooding the airwaves with advertising around the National Basketball Association playoffs -- reflect "who we are as a company."
There remains the small problem of living wages. "Sweatshops are known to the U.S. public as places where people work in miserable conditions for miserable wages," Medea Benjamin, director of Global Exchange, said in an interview. "Nike is addressing the miserable conditions, but a sweatshop is a sweatshop is a sweatshop unless you address miserable wages."
But Benjamin, whose San Francisco-based group has helped put labor rights on the human rights agenda, said the Nike moves were nonetheless significant. It's important, she said, that the company is accepting the principle that outside monitors should oversee its labor practices, and that it is agreeing to abide overseas by the environmental and safety standards set in American law. "If you can get Nike with enough pressure, you can get the whole industry," she said.
The Nike moves are a small step on a very long journey whose aim is to civilize the global economy. Around the world, unions and human rights groups have argued that a global trading system should be subject to labor and environmental rules, much as domestic economies are. Investors who favor global agreements to protect their financial assets ought to see the logic of similar rules to protect human assets -- the people who work in the plants.
But enforceable global labor standards will not come easily. In the meantime, there is something called the marketplace, and it gives consumers the right to make judgments: Yes, about the quality of the products they buy but also about the behavior of the companies that make them. It might surprise Karl Marx that consumer decisions based on a company's human rights record can affect sales and, in turn, Wall Street's judgments.
"A stain on one of the sterling brands of the century is reflecting itself in its stock price," says Ronald Blackwell, director of corporate affairs for the AFL-CIO, referring to Nike. The company had a 27 percent drop in earnings in the first three quarters of the current fiscal year, though Knight attributed this to the Asian financial crisis.
Blackwell argues that the next step is to recognize that ending the most egregious abuses in foreign factories is not enough. Reforms will endure, he said, only if workers have the right to speak up on their own behalf without fear of reprisal, physical violence or jail terms. He notes that Nike has factories in Vietnam, China and Indonesia, "three of the most difficult countries in the world for ensuring workers' rights."
Echoing the Polish union leaders who helped bring down communism, Blackwell said "totalitarian governments" that block "freedom of association and freedom of expression" for workers can render even the nicest-sounding corporate codes of conduct unenforceable.
Perhaps the corporate execs could have a word or two with the leaders of the police states where they locate their factories and gently suggest that human rights violations are becoming bad for business. And perhaps those who are rightly battling for religious liberty in such nations can link arms with those who want freedom's writ to run to those who make our Air Jordans.