's activities in Honduras were condemned as “monstrous” this week by two factory workers from that Central American country who alleged abuses by the sportswear company.
Speaking Tuesday night at Portland State University, the two Honduran workers told an audience of about 100 people that Nike's subcontractors violated Honduran law by withholding severance payments totaling $2.2 million. The workers, who have spoken out across the United States against Nike this past month, say the severance payment should have been triggered after two apparel factories were shut down without notice in January 2009.
Nike did not own the factories, but the workers say the company's code of conduct holds it accountable for its business partners' illegal actions.
“This fell upon deaf ears because Nike refused to listen to our demand,” says 33-year-old single mother Lowlee Urquia, who worked at Vision Tex for three years.
Urquia, who spoke through a translator, says she made about $40 a week. And while she officially worked an eight-hour day, she says pay is dependent on meeting quotas that are unrealistic, forcing her to work overtime. About 80 percent of Hondurans work for the manufacturing industry. Many at the Hugger de Honduras and Vision Tex apparel factories were forced to go back to rural village life when they lost their jobs.
“This is very common in developing countries,” says Jeff Ballinger, director of Press for Change, an NGO that monitors worker rights. “They know exactly what's going on. Their eyes are wide open.”
The two factories let go about 1,700 employees after workers tried to unionize last year. The unions had been organized in light of alleged violations, including the purposeful firing of new employees before the end of their two-month evaluation period, thus evading the costs of worker benefits. Hugger halted the union three times, once firing the organization's entire leadership in a single day, workers say.
The workers also say that as early as August 2008, the factories pocketed deducted wages that should have gone to their national health care funds. Additionally, workers at Vision Tex say they weren't paid for their last week's work.
“Here in the U.S. [Nike] wants to put on this face that it's a ... responsible company, but we are evidence that this is not true. If that were true, Nike would not have basically laughed at us,” says Urquia. She says no amount of money can undo the harm, adding that a close friend died from cancer after she was denied treatment when her health care was discontinued.
Fortunately for workers, they pressured factory owners to give them partial compensation by letting them sell the physical assets – remaining machinery and clothing – at the factories. Workers say they are still owed more than 80 percent of the severance payments - $1,250 per worker or about five months pay.
In the United States, Nike is under pressure from universities to ensure that subcontractors obey the law. Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin became the first to terminate
a business relationship with Nike over worker rights violations. Nike reported in 2007 that Hugger de Honduras produced clothing and equipment for more than 40 universities. It changed its position, however, in October 2009, saying the factory did not produce university apparel.
Mariah Thompson, representing students from the University of Oregon, says she hopes that one day she could wear a Nike-produced T-shirt that comes from an ethical means of production. Oregon director of CAUSA, Francisco Lopez, emphasized her point. “All the millions of dollars that are being given away to the universities should not be given away on the backs of central American workers,” says Lopez.
Nike was invited to the PSU event, which included witness testimonies from the two workers and a panel discussion with the Portland Area Workers' Rights Board (including activist Steve Novick and Martin Hart-Landsberg, an economics professor at Lewis and Clark College), but the company declined to attend.
“An open hearing where Nike has been asked to testify is not the most effective forum for constructive dialogue with the Honduran workers,” Nike representative Caitlin Morris wrote in a letter. “Nike will be reaching out to USAS and the two worker representatives from Honduras to offer to meet with them while they are in Portland.”
In an April 20 press release
, Nike promised to give laid off workers new job training and priority hiring at other facilities. But Gina Cano, 34, who worked at Hugger for five years, says she was let go within weeks from a new factory when employers discovered her background as a union organizer. “We've been blacklisted,” says Cano. “The main point of suffering for us is that we haven't been able to support our children.”