Mike's blind side

November 14, 1997|By Fredrick McKissack Jr.

ONCE AGAIN, Michael Jordan had a chance to speak out about working conditions in Nike plants in Southeast Asia. Once again, he failed to do that.

In a recent interview aired on ABC's ''Prime Time Live,'' reporter Chris Wallace wanted to know Mr. Jordan's response to charges some Nike products are made in Indonesian sweatshops by children who earn as little as 14 cents an hour.

''I couldn't voice an opinion until I found out exactly what was happening and how that affected me,'' he said. Mr. Wallace answered the rest for Mr. Jordan with a voice-over saying the Chicago Bulls star ''now backs Nike, citing a recent study that shows workers are paid a fair wage.''

Labor protest

Mr. Jordan was referring to a study by Andrew Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. But Monday, the Transnational Resource and Action Center, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco, obtained a copy of a Nike internal audit done by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young. The audit was carried out on a Vietnamese factory of the company that produces 400,000 shoes a month. The workers, who are mostly females, are actually employed by Tae Kwang Vina Industrial Ltd. Co., a Korean-owned sub-contractor of Nike.

Ernst & Young found numerous violations of corporate and Vietnamese government policies, including 104 cases in which workers under 18 were being used, and 48 cases in which employees were required to labor above the maximum hours. Employees, the memo says, worked as much as 65 hours a week, for which they earned slightly more than $10.

Ernst & Young also found the electric-ventilation system and natural-air booths at the plant were insufficient to reduce the dust from harmful chemical powders. As many as 77 percent of the workers there suffered from respiratory problems. The chemical solvent toluene was present in the air of the factory at levels of between six and 177 times the amount allowed by Vietnamese law. Prolonged exposure to this chemical can cause severe damage to the liver, kidneys and nervous system.

The Transnational Resource and Action Center was critical of Ernst & Young's methodology, and the center's interviews with workers show conditions were much worse than even portrayed.

While Nike says it has taken steps to clean up its Vietnamese operation, why did it deny these allegations until a leak called attention to the abuse of Nike workers? Why didn't it make the results public? And what about Nike's other plants? Such questions need to be answered.

But there is a bigger question. It involves Michael Jordan. During the ''Prime Time Live'' segment, a Nike spokesman said, ''Michael's very picky, so we try to accommodate as much as we can.'' If only he were as picky about how the shoes are made as he is about their price and color schemes.

Ten dollars a week

The Vietnamese women earn $10 a week for their labor, and Mr. Jordan's best-selling shoes retail at between $90 and $150 a pair. Mr. Jordan insists he doesn't know how much he makes a year in salary and endorsements, but Mr. Wallace says it's between $50 million and $100 million a year. A good percentage of that comes from Nike.

The Nike memo should be the smoking gun for Mr. Jordan and every other shoe-shilling athlete. Let's hope that it compels them to break their silence.

Fredrick McKissack Jr. is a former editor of the Madison, Wis.-based Progressive Media Project.

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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