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KLEIN: Big Victory for Anti-Sweatshop Movement

800 workers at a Mexican sweatshop whose biggest client was Nike walked off the job recently to protest the firing of workers who were demanding an independent union.
 
 
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Marion Traub-Werner was in Toronto visiting her family when the call came: 800 garment workers had walked off the job at a factory in Mexico.

She caught the next plane to Mexico City and was meeting with workers within hours.

For Ms. Traub-Werner, this wasn't just any strike: "It was the one we've been waiting for," she says. This factory was producing sweatshirts that bear the insignias of the Universities of Michigan, Oregon, Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina. The factory's biggest client is Nike, which has sports apparel contracts with these schools and many others.

For the past five years, Marion Traub-Werner has been one of key organizers of the growing student anti-sweatshop movement in North America, helping to found United Students Against Sweatshop, now active on 175 campuses. The students have been locked in a bitter dispute with the companies that produce clothing for their schools, and their most public battles have been with the sporting goods giant Nike.

At issue is not whether or not there is a sweatshop problem in the $2.5-billion college apparel market. At issue is who should be trusted to regulate and monitor the factories. Nike has consistently claimed it can solve the problem itself: it has a strong Code of Conduct and is part of the Fair Labor Association, set up by U.S. President Bill Clinton. It also hires outside monitoring firms to make sure the 700 factories that produce its goods are playing by the rules.

The students have rejected this route, saying that corporations cannot be expected to monitor themselves. They have instead pressured their schools to join the Worker's Rights Consortium, a group that advocates truly independent monitoring, free of company control.

To outsiders, it has seemed an arcane battle between competing acronyms: the FLA vs. the WRC. But at the Kuk-Dong garment factory in Atlixco, Mexico, the dispute has just taken on a human face. Kuk-Dong was one of Nike's test factories, visited by Nike-hired monitors on several occasions. Today, the students will go public with a damning video-taped interview with a Kuk-Dong worker, footage they say shows that Nike's Code of Conduct is being violated.

On the video, viewed exclusively by The Globe and Mail, a young Mexican woman speaks of poverty wages, hunger, of getting sick on the job and not being allowed time off. When asked how old she is, she replies "fifteen." (Starting this morning, the video can be viewed at www.behindthelabel.org)

According to Nike's Code of Conduct, the company will not employ garment workers younger than sixteen. Nike says she may have falsified documents to land the job. Document fraud is, in fact, widespread in Mexico, but underage workers often claim that they were coached to lie by the companies' own recruiters.

There are other factors in the Kuk-Dong case that call Nike's monitoring methods into question. Nike claims that the workers who produce its goods have the right to freedom of association, and when I spoke yesterday to Vada Manager, Nike's director of Global Issues Management, he insisted "we are not anti-union."

But workers say that when they decided to throw out the "company union" that failed to represent their interests, five of their most outspoken representatives were fired. (So-called company unions, imposed on workers and in bed with management, are commonplace in Mexico, where independent unions are treated as a barrier to foreign investment.)

Last Tuesday, the workers went on strike to protest the firing of their leaders: 800 people walked away from their sewing machines and occupied their factory. According to Josephina Hernandez, one of the fired organizers, "what we are asking for is an end to the corrupt union and for an independent union formed by workers."

The results, once again, were disastrous. On Thursday, riot police, led by the leader of the company union, swept in and put an end to the protest, beating workers and sending 15 to the hospital. The attacks were so brutal that roughly two-hundred workers have decided not to return to work at the factory even though the strike is over, fearing management retribution.

Clearly freedom of association, a right according to Mexican law and Nike's own Code of Conduct, is not a reality at the Kuk-Dong factory.

Vada Manager says the last order Nike placed with Kuk-Dong -- for fleece sweatshirts -- was filled in December. He says Nike will decide whether to place further orders based on the recommendations of its "mediator on the scene."

The factory workers and university students, working together in Mexico, want something else. They don't want Nike to flee an ugly scene to save face, but to stay and prove that its Code of Conduct is more than pretty words. "We want Nike to put pressure on Kuk-Dong to negotiate directly with the workers," says Ms. Traub-Werner. "It's a long term approach, but we think a more lasting one."