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Nike Protest Charges Abuses of Employees

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A crowd composed mostly of Vietnamese UC Irvine alumni and students picketed in front of Nike Town on Saturday demanding that the athletic-shoe giant take measures to ensure that workers overseas have the same basic rights as those in the United States.

The protest, which drew about 80 people, was a response to recent media reports that workers at several Nike subcontractors in Vietnam have been hit, forced to kneel or physically abused as punishment for supposedly poor-quality work. A CBS news program in October also reported that women were sexually abused and workers were paid below the country’s minimum wage of about $45 per month.

“There’s no reason to take advantage of the level of poverty in other countries and exploit the people even more,” said Xuan Vu, 23, a UC Irvine alumnus and teacher for the Santa Ana Unified School District. “Corporations must take on the responsibility of ensuring that employees who work for them are treated fairly.”

Nike Inc. spokeswoman Vizhier Corpuz said the company has taken steps to correct any “wrongdoings” publicized by the CBS program.

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At least two supervisors working for Korean-owned subcontractors in Vietnam have been fired and another was disciplined as a result of investigations into the alleged abuse, Corpuz said. Nike representatives also are working with various labor rights groups and Vietnamese government officials to “ensure that workers all over the world are treated with dignity,” Corpuz said.

Nike subcontractors employ about 350,000 workers in 40 overseas countries. To ensure that labor laws are followed, the shoe company has about 1,000 production managers stationed at those sites, company officials said. In Vietnam, five subcontractors employ about 24,000 employees.

Nike posted a $553.2-million profit in the fiscal year ending in May.

In 1994, the auditing firm Ernst & Young was hired to independently monitor Southeast Asian subcontractors following worker abuse allegations at Nike’s Indonesian subcontract factories. The company also is working with several government and labor rights groups to monitor subcontractors, which are under a code of conduct agreement with Nike that prohibits labor abuses, authorities said.

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Following the CBS report and newspaper articles about the alleged abuses in Vietnam, Nike “immediately took action,” Corpuz said. “We reacted immediately because, again, it’s important to us that all workers be treated with respect.”

The protesters contend that Nike and other corporations with subcontracts overseas do not take action until violations are publicized. They say the U.S. government should attach human and labor rights conditions to future trade agreements with Vietnam, where labor unions and strikes are prohibited.

“If we had a mechanism to ensure workers’ rights, we wouldn’t be in this situation today, would we?” said Suzie Matsuda, 30, a Santa Ana mental health specialist who helped organize the protest. “The sad situation is, Nike keeps blaming the subcontractors. We don’t want [the company] to use subcontractors as scapegoats.”

As strikers marched in front of Nike Town in the 1800 block of Newport Boulevard carrying placards, flags and bullhorns and shouting “Just don’t do it, say no to Nike!” motorists at the intersection honked their horns in support. Triangle Square shoppers who entered the area were given fliers that quoted various newspaper and television news accounts of the alleged labor abuses.

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Saturday’s protest was sponsored by the UCI Vietnamese American Coalition, the Campaign for Labor Rights and other Vietnamese community organizations. The protesters say they plan to take their fight all the way to Capitol Hill if necessary. They are planning a letter-writing campaign to Congress and appeals for support to international human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

“Unfortunately, Nike is not the only company doing this and Vietnam is not the only country where this type of abuse occurs,” said Diem Do, another organizer. “Hopefully, if we can put enough pressure on the companies, they might clean up their act.”


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