Philip Phu Bui
IT’S TIME to do Christmas shopping. This year I will skip Nike products to protest the company’s labor abuses overseas.
Since the United States lifted its trade embargo and normalized relations with its former enemy, Americans are eagerly stepping into a lucrative market with 72 million people. Joint-venture investments between foreign and Vietnamese companies have provided employment for tens of thousands of people and helped the economy tremendously. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Hanoi are flooded with billboards advertising attractive products like television sets, VCRs, trendy clothes, soft drinks and electrical appliances. One can easily spot the popular Nike shoes commercials everywhere.
However, behind the rosy picture of economic development is its darker side with abuses of local workers.
One such abuse was recently reported on CBS’s “48 Hours.” Fifteen female Vietnamese team leaders were lined up and hit one by one with an unfinished Nike shoe for poor work quality. The punishment took place in March at Samyang Shoe Factory, a Nike subcontractor in Cu Chi District, Ho Chi Minh City.
After the beating, hundreds of angry workers stopped working to protest the management. Madame Baeck, a Korean supervisor who struck the 15 workers, said of the incident, “It’s not a big deal. It’s just a method for managing workers.”
She was later given three months probation by a local court a very light sentence for such abusive treatment of workers. A Korean watchman working night shift was merely sent back to South Korea after being accused of sexually molesting female workers.
From the United States, Nike chief executive Phil Knight also tried to downplay those incidents by saying a Vietnamese stitcher was hit on the arm. Actually, 15 workers were hit on their heads and necks and two were hospitalized, according to what they told CBS. Meanwhile, a Nike representative in Vietnam refused to talk to the CBS reporter about the abuses.
Several months after the beatings happened, 45 workers were forced to kneel down under the hot sun, with their hands up in the air, for 25 minutes because of their poor job performance. In another incident, a supervisor taped shut the mouth of a talkative worker.
With 20,000 Vietnamese, mostly females, working at Nike shoe factories scattered around Ho Chi Minh City and neighboring provinces, Nike management not only let such incidents happen repeatedly, but also paid its workers below the minimum wage set by Vietnamese labor laws.
Vietnamese team leaders working six days a week are paid $40 a month, less for regular workers. According to CBS, the average hourly wage of Vietnamese workers at Nike factories is about 20 cents. Vietnam labor laws state that the minimum monthly wage is $45 for workers at foreign factories situated in Ho Chi Minh City. Besides being underpaid, they must work 600 hours overtime to meet a debilitating quota system. Vietnam labor laws only require 200 hours a year.
Even though the Communist Party establishes party cells in foreign-run companies to safeguard workers’ rights and to prevent the spreading of Western ideas and values, it is evident that foreign supervisors abused local workers while Vietnamese law enforcement officers let the abusers get away. This kind of collaboration was considered labor exploitation by the communists during the war.
On Oct. 25, a protest letter signed by more than 100 Vietnamese-American professionals was sent to Nike’s Phil Knight. The letter informed him that a worldwide Nike boycott has been launched and will end only after Nike addresses the issues, corrects the problems and allows an independent organization to monitor its labor practices.
The Vietnamese people have suffered so much during the war. Now they just simply want to have dignity and respect. How would they view the return of the Americans depends on how we conduct our business there.
Let’s express our solidarity with the Vietnamese workers by joining the Nike boycott.
Philip Phu Bui is a public school teacher and a writer. He worked with the Peace Corps in Africa and United Nations in Asia.
[West County Times (Richmond, CA) – December 14, 1996]