Knight in Shining Sneakers! The Swoosh Strikes Back

Nike Inc., while offending people on almost as many continents as it has shod them, has lately been skimping on P.R. My e-mail inquiry to the eponymous Mr. Vada Manager of Nike’s public relations office recently got bounced back with a note saying that Mr. Manager’s mailbox was full with no fewer than 1,000 messages. When you market a way of life with images, you can fall by images, too. With its poisonous chemicals, frequently harsh working conditions and unimpressive remuneration-in Vietnam, the annual wage paid by Nike subcontractors is about 27 one-millionths of poster boy Michael Jordan’s annual Nike take-Nike’s P.R. has just not been doing it. The main man, chief executive Philip Knight, once proclaimed the obvious, that “Nike is a marketing-oriented company,” but a rash of bad publicity-from the likes of CBS’s 48 Hours , Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury , The New York Times ‘ Bob Herbert and Steven Greenhouse, ESPN and Michael Moore-has been putting tread in anti-Nike campaigns.

Activists have also been unrelenting, although big-league media have not been noticing. On April 18 came an international day of protest in dozens of cities, a set of coordinated demonstrations that in reach, if not numbers, rivaled the South Africa protests of 1985-86. Then, April 20, a lawsuit was filed in San Francisco charging that Nike’s advertising campaigns misrepresent the company’s actual policies-drawing evidence of Nike’s practices from the company’s own internal audit, which had been leaked to The Times last November. Andrew Young’s mission to Southeast Asia in the wake of the 48 Hours piece in 1996 by Roberta Baskin and Diane Ronnau [The National Observer, May 11] was less than a raving success; Mr. Young admitted afterward that it would have been preferable to bring along independent translators. Nike kept claiming that Nike and its subcontractors had dealt with the abuse of workers “immediately and effectively, long before [CBS’s] television cameras arrived,” to quote a company internal memo of Oct. 18, 1996, “assur[ing] that similar problems [do] not occur”; then, lo and behold, similar abuses cropped up in ESPN’s footage aired just last month. Nike has a way of declaring its workers’ problems prematurely solved.

When protests against Nike’s exclusive deals with university sports teams make the papers not only in Berkeley but in North Carolina and Buffalo, it’s time to wheel out the big gun. And so Mr. Knight, who is facing a Nike downturn for many business reasons, went to the National Press Club on May 12 to announce reforms. In the early press commentary, the emphasis fell on Mr. Knight’s announcement about enforcing new age limits abroad-a minimum age of 18 for new workers in shoe factories, and 16 for new workers in other factories. Less so on his declaration that Nike, which has in the past insisted that local safety standards are perfectly adequate, will now insure that American standards will be observed. Actually, “enforced” is the word used by John H. Cushman Jr. in The Times of May 13. But in the era when big government is over, “enforced” is a stretch, since America’s Occupational Safety and Health Act, or OSHA, is itself substandard, and the agency charged with policing it wants for inspectors.

I asked Dr. Howard Frumkin for his reactions to the Knight move. Dr. Frumkin, who chairs the department of environmental and occupational health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, has been following Nike matters for some time; his was the voice of expertise on the ESPN documentary on Nike factories that aired last month. His expertise runs to poisonous toluene (a danger to the reproductive system, to nerves and skin) and other chemicals Nike uses. About Mr. Knight’s new policy he makes a number of salient points:

· “If Nike implements a policy requiring that its subcontractors and suppliers comply with OSHA standards, that will be an extremely positive step, and will make Nike an industry leader in worker protection.” The operative word, of course, is “if.”

· Said Dr. Frumkin, “Vietnam’s official toluene exposure limit is 50 parts per million- lower than the OSHA standard. It would be good to clarify what Nike’s policy will be when local regulations are more stringent than U.S. regulations.”

· In footwear plants, there are other dangers to which OSHA standards apply, such as heat and noise, but these, said Dr. Frumkin, “have-regrettably-received less attention. In addition, the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard requires that employers provide health and safety training, labeling, and readily available Material Safety Data Sheets, and develop written health and safety plans. Does Nike intend to comply with this standard as well?” he asked.

· OSHA requires employers to keep plants free from “recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm,” even where specific standards do not exist. “Does Nike intend to comply with this clause as well?” Dr. Frumkin asked. “If so, that would imply attention to yet another hazard that has received little attention at Nike plants-repetitive motion. OSHA does not have a strong ergonomics standard, but hopefully Nike won’t avoid protecting workers for that reason.”

· “The general point here is that OSHA standards aren’t perfect. Some OSHA standards that should exist-such as ergonomics protections-don’t exist because industries and Congress have prevented OSHA from promulgating them. Many OSHA standards now in place were promulgated over two decades ago, and have not been updated, even when we now know they are not sufficiently protective. In particular, early OSHA standards were premised on the health of male workers, and took little account of reproductive toxicity-an important point for an industry that employs many women of child-bearing age. So Nike, to achieve state-of-the-art protection of its workers, should in many cases exceed OSHA standards.”

· “A final point: A key part of OSHA function is inspection. OSHA standards are only as effective as their implementation, and inspection has been a critical way to assure this implementation. It seems to me that Nike, if it is serious, must arrange for independent oversight of its facilities by qualified personnel, including industrial hygienists and occupational physicians.… Without such oversight, an announcement that the company plans to follow the rules carries little weight. If I publicly announce that I am going to drive below the speed limit, but I know there are no police on any of the roads, would my promise impress you?”

Dana O’Rourke, research associate for the Transnational Resource and Action Center in San Francisco, and the man who leaked the Ernst & Young audit report to The Times last year, told me he was very glad to see Nike’s change, “at least in attitude,” but also observed that the company’s press statement is “vague about inspections. The question is what monitoring will be done, will N.G.O.’s [nongovernmental organizations] have access, and how to monitor whether the monitoring is rigorous and truly independent.” Mr. O’Rourke, who was on his way back to Vietnam just after I spoke with him, hopes to work with Nike now to set up a system of independent monitors. Maria Eitel, Nike’s new vice president for social responsibility, called Medea Benjamin, a prominent San Francisco global labor activist, the day Mr. Knight spoke at the National Press Club, and said she wanted to meet.

So now there’s a solid agenda of questions that ought to be put to Mr. Knight and his staff, shining armor and all, in the months and years ahead. Journalists who have attended to Nike’s-and other companies’-doings in Southeast Asia ought to keep looking now, inspecting the inspections. The media who haven’t been paying attention ought to start. Knight in Shining Sneakers! The Swoosh Strikes Back