Nike Workers: "We Want to Fight, but We Don't Know How."

I recently spent 11 days in Indonesia as part of my work with Team Sweat, an international campaign focused on securing living wages and union contracts for Nike's overseas factory workers.

One of the goals of my trip was to find the workers that made the World Cup replica jerseys that I bought at Niketown in NYC before I left for Indonesia. My team had been searching for a couple of weeks prior to my arrival for the plants where these jerseys were produced, but to no avail. Luckily, following our meeting with the Nike shoe factory workers the other night, one of the union leaders said that he had a contact for us at a plant that may have produced this stuff. On Thursday night, he arranged for me to meet with half a dozen workers from this Nike apparel factory.

As I pulled the soccer jerseys from my bag --replicas from the U.S., Brazilian, Australian and English National Teams-- and passed them around the room, I was struck by the care and attention that each worker gave to the shirts. When most people grab one of these jerseys, they hold it up to themselves, throw it on, and are off on their merry way. But these workers carefully inspected each piece, running their fingers along each seam and holding it the way that a sculptor might hold and admire a finished piece of art. These were not just soccer jerseys to them; this was their lifework, and the pride they took in what they do and create was evident.

As things turned out, these particular jerseys were not produced at their factory, although they did produce replicas for Nike for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and they are now producing similar Nike products. They shared that there may be a factory within their group that produced these and they would try and find out for me.

As our conversation continued, the workers shared that (to no surprise), the number one issue for them was their wages. Their basic salaries ranged from Rp1.130.000 (125 USD) to Rp1.191.000 (132 USD). The differences in pay were because of the range of jobs that were held (sewing operator, machine tech, sample creators).

They also shared a couple of other interesting things. One of the women told me that whenever Nike monitors are scheduled to visit the plant, workers are told by the managers to lie to the monitors and not to discuss anything that might be deemed negative about the plant. They also shared that their work days are very long, sometimes working from 7am-8:30pm. And when they do have to work long shifts like this, the factory is supposed to provide them with dinner - a meal of at least 1400 calories. The reality is that they get small portions of rice, vegetables, tempeh, and salty fish - not nearly close to the agreed upon standard. They told me that in the past, they used to get a meal allowance of Rp2.250 if they had to work overtime. I know from my research that Rp2.250 would buy you about a third of a portion of a modest meal at the local food stall. So, it seems that whether they are getting the cash or the food, they are being cheated.

We came back to the discussion on wage levels and one of the men shared how tough it is to try and survive on the wages, especially given the fact that he has a daughter. I'm a relatively new parent myself (my daughter will be two in July) and so the issues that workers who are parents face have taken on new personal emotional meaning for me.

I asked him about his daughter and I learned that she is three-and-a-half years old. When she was just three months old, she had to be sent to live with his mother-in-law in a village in central Java between Solo and Yogakarta. Because he makes such a low salary producing for Nike, he is only able to see his daughter two or three times a year. He fought back his pain as he shared this with me and my heart went out to him. I have only been away from my daughter for a few days and I miss her dearly. I cannot imagine only seeing her two or three times a year.

I shared with him and his fellow workers that this situation is unfair. I showed them flyers I had prepared that documented how much Nike made last year from their sweat and hard work.

Nike's 2009 Revenues: Rp19. (2 billion USD)

I also showed them a flyer with the names, photos and salaries of the top five executives at Nike and what they made in 2009.

Phil Knight, Chairman of the Board
Basic salary = Rp28.254.340.000
Total salary = Rp34.564.540.000 (3.8 million USD)

Mark Parker, President and CEO
Basic salary = Rp13.769.230.000
Total salary = Rp88.005.870.000 (9.7 million USD)

Donald Blair, Chief Financial Officer, VP
Basic salary = Rp7.400.000.000
Total salary = Rp33.470.000.000 (3.7 million USD)

Gary DeStefano, President of Global Operations
Basic salary = Rp9.588.460.000
Total salary = Rp39.984.080.000 (4.4 million USD)

Charlie Denson, President of the Nike Brand
Basic salary = Rp11.923.100.000
Total salary = Rp73.333.700.000 (8.1 million USD)

After showing them these flyers, I shared with them that I am quite sure that none of these men or anyone that is working for Nike in the USA had to "export" their babies back to home villages. I shared with them that these Nike executives are getting rich, the Nike investors are getting rich, the athletes that endorse Nike are getting rich, but the workers who produced the real wealth for Nike continue to live in abject poverty. I asked them if they wanted to fight to change this.

One of the women responded, "Yes, we want to fight, but we don't know how."

Here our work begins.

JUST(ice) DO IT.