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At a speak-out Monday, Noi Supalai, former union president and garment worker from Bangkok, Thailand, addressed a group of students to share her experience as an employee at a Thai factory where she produced Nike apparel.
The event was hosted by the campus chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops to raise awareness about proper oversight of apparel factories overseas,
In November 2015, Nike announced it would stop allowing independent inspectors, such as the Worker Rights Consortium, to monitor work conditions in Nike apparel factories. Instead, the company said it would internally self-monitor its own activities — a decision that groups like USAS have said they fear will lead to potential worker abuse.
Morgan Currier, USAS International Campaigns Coordinator, began the speak-out with an interactive exercise, asking the attendees to think critically about the role students play in perpetuating the abuse of foreign laborers and ways in which they can improve worker conditions. She said institutions such as the University of Michigan, by signing contracts with brands like Nike, indirectly allow such practices to continue to exist. The University’s Athletic Department signed an apparel deal with Nike in 2015 that does not expire until 2027.
“We believe that we should only be doing business with brands who respect the rights of their workers,” Currier said. “What we do in USAS is we support the organizing efforts of workers around the world. We don’t believe in charity; we believe in solidarity.”
Students listened to her remarks as they read one another’s clothing tags — tags that read made in Honduras, Indonesia, Cambodia, China and Vietnam. Currier pointed to an example of the positive impact students have made on monitoring in countries such as Honduras to inspire student activism on campus and around the country.
In 2008, Currier said, Russell Athletic had a factory in Honduras, but chose to source elsewhere after native workers formed a union. She alleged that workers found themselves blacklisted, uncompensated and unemployable as a result of the move.
USAS mobilized a delegation of students in response to the changes to help workers protest, with the aim of having campus groups pressure their universities to hold Russell accountable while workers organized in Honduras. Ultimately, Currier said students led to contracts being cut at 110 universities over a two-year period, costing the brand over $50 million.
“The workers won because our campaign was so effective,” Currier said. “Student pressure is so important, they not only reopened the factory and allowed workers to have their union, but they signed a binding union agreement to allow seven other factories in Honduras to form unions.”
During the event, Supalai shared her own personal experience with worker abuse and unsafe working conditions. At the Thai factory Eagle Speed, she served as the president of the labor union that formed when the factory exploited its employees. She charged that workers were subject to dangerous conditions and poor hours from 8 a.m. to midnight after Nike threatened to pull its business from Eagle Speed if they failed to meet a stricter deadline at a lesser cost.
As well, she said when employees were unable to fulfill these expectations, Nike failed to pay the factory and, in turn, workers did not receive wages for more than two months. Any sign of protest was met with threats of termination.
Supalai noted that in her case, several Thai organizations and the government all failed to intervene on their behalf, and it wasn’t until an external inspector got involved that they began to see results. Ultimately, 23 strikers who were detained were released and the factory apologized to the employees, providing them with a choice to resign with compensation or to continue working with Eagle Speed.
Supalai emphasized the need for independent monitoring organizations, saying she was concerned about Nike’s current policy that allows the company to monitor its own operations.
“I would like to call for you to put effort in this campaign to call for the possibility of WRC to be able to monitor Nike,” Supalai said. “There’s a need for a middle organization like WRC to monitor Nike because Nike doesn’t care about working conditions. In my opinion, they’re forming their own organization to do this job just because they want to hide behind this organization.”
Currier pointed to action taken at other universities, such as the University of Washington and Cornell University, that have begun to demand various factories allow independent inspections of work conditions.
“The goal is that more students know about this problem with Nike and take action to force the University to force Nike to be accountable to independent monitors,” Currier said. “And if Nike doesn’t reverse this policy, they shouldn’t be able to make Michigan apparel in the fall.”