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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Apr 21, 2010, 12:19 pm

Honduran Workers Speak Out Against Nike’s Labor Violations

BY Akito Yoshikane

Just days after the University of Wisconsin-Madison canceled its sports apparel contract with Nike, two Honduran workers spoke at the school to shed light on labor violations at the factories they worked at, which do subcontract work for the sports apparel giant.

On April 9, Wisconsin became the first university to end its contract with Nike for the company's failure to address the problems at two factories that suddenly closed on January 19, 2009. The school earned $49,000 in 2008-09 for allowing Nike to use the university logo on its clothing and products.

Gina Cano and Lowlee Urquia, who visited U-W Madison on Saturday April 17,  are touring American universities to discuss their experiences as former employees at factories subcontracted by Nike. The effort is part of a mounting student-led campaign to pressure administration officials to re-examine their relationship with Nike over workers' rights in Honduras. 

The university said Nike was not doing enough to address the roughly 1,600 displaced workers in Honduras, adding that the company has failed to pay a severance of $2.2 million owed to the workers at the Hugger de Honduras and Vision Tex factories, which both closed in January 2009.The factory closed shortly after the workers decided to unionize to address these inequities, according to Urquia.

The workers also added that they were not compensated for overtime, faced unreasonable quotas, and were denied contributions to the national health benefit program. As a result, the employees were not able to get the proper medical care they were legally entitled to receive.

Cano and Urquia told Wisconsin students that workers are only asking for a small amount of what Nike earns in total. Cano spent 13 years at the Hugger de Honduras, which employed 1,200 people; so far, she said she only received 21 percent of her benefits, according to the Badger Herald. Urquia, an employee at Vision Tex with 457 others, said she only earned 26 percent of her benefits.

Under the university's code of conduct, the company is responsible for the subcontractors. Nike has distanced themselves from the issue by maintaining that their policy holds subcontractors responsible for paying employees. The company also said collegiate apparel was not made in the Honduran factories, with the exception of a one-time order. They add that they are offering job-training programs and priority job placement to the former employees.

But a March memo by the Workers Rights Consortium found otherwise. It said Nike's efforts address the violations are "clearly inadequate," adding that there was a lack of oversight:

It is important to note that the findings outlined here point to a failure on the part of Nike to adequately monitor the factories’ compliance with Honduran law prior to their closure. The violations reviewed here would have been readily apparent through a competent review of the documentation held at both facilities and through interviews with workers.

The report recommended that Nike offer comprehensive healthcare, reimburse medical expenses, and engage in talks with the workers. But so far, negotiations with the company have not evolved. Workers are still unemployed and uncompensated, and they've begun to travel the United States to share their struggles. Cano and Urquia have already stopped at Purdue University, University of North Carolina and Penn State, among others, to speak at events sponsored by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

The nationwide campaign has its antecedents. As reported here previously, the USAS, along with several student-led movements, was able to successfully persuade Russell Athletics to reverse its anti-union stance last year by pressuring schools to end their licensing agreements. Russell had fired 1,200 workers in Honduras after they unionized, but rehired them once universities suspended their contracts.

A similar measure could be brewing once again as momentum picks up around the country. New York University is now reviewing its relationship with Nike. Some University of Washington officials have also expressed concern. As Cano and Urquia continue their campus tours, Wisconsin may not be the only university to have canceled its contract for long.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at akitoyoshikane [at] gmail.com

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