December 2000 - Jim Keady, Anti-Sweatshop Activist
Introduction by Leslie Kretzu
Try on these shoes:
You are a 20-something adult working 8am to 8pm, Monday through Saturday and sometimes Sunday, that doesn't include travel time or preparing yourself for work. You don't have the money to go out with your friends on Saturday night and celebrate someone's birthday. You don't have the money to buy a television or even a radio. You haven't bought yourself something new to wear in over 2 years. When you get home at the end of the day, you have to spend a good 30-45 minutes doing your laundry by hand. You need to do laundry frequently, because you don't have many clothes, and whatever you wear (depending on the color and how bad you sweat) is visibly dirty at the end of the day.
You have a child who has no toys. Your child is malnourished, even after you put in 12 hours a day at the factory. Because of the malnourishment, your child is more susceptible to illness. On top of that, your child has nowhere to play except for dirt streets and open lots lined with garbage. There's a cesspool running throughout your neighborhood, where rats, cockroaches, dirty cats, roosters and chickens wallow. You don't have the money to move to a better location. You don't make enough to save money to one day move to a better location. You have debt. You don't have enough money to take your child to the doctor. You don't have enough money to buy cough medicine. A real treat would be buying a small loaf of bread. You're constantly inhaling serious car pollution and the nauseatingly sweet stench of burning plastic and rubber. You're exhausted. You can feel the tired in your bones. You're afraid that if you speak up, you'll lose your job. And the multinational company you work for is telling the world that they've made serious changes, and consumers need not worry, because you're 100% happy. Why did I start the Olympic Living Wage Project?
In 1997 I was asked to join the coaching staff of the St. John's University Men's Soccer Program, who, at the time, were the defending NCAA Division I National Champions. It was a coaching dream; I was joining the staff of the hottest college soccer team of the 1990's. What was equally exciting was that I was also going to be able to pursue a Masters Degree in Theology at St. John's and the University would be paying for it. I wanted to study theology because I had spent the past three years teaching high school religion and I felt that my students had some great questions for which I didn't necessarily have great answers. Being able to coach at the top program in the country and try to find answers to the deep theological questions that burned inside me... it was a perfect match.
From the first day on the job, the work I did for the Men's Soccer Program was intense. We were defending a National Championship, and every team in the country wanted to prove they could knock off the best. I was the goalkeeper coach for the team. Prior to my time at SJU, I played three seasons as a professional goalkeeper with the NJ Imperials. By the season's end, our goalkeeping unit had the lowest goals-against average in the country. We did not fulfill the dream we all shared that year, to repeat as National Champions, but we did make it to the Big East Final and to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
What was even more intense during that year was the academic work and the ensuing personal challenge I faced because my studies. In a short period of six months, my entire world would be turned upside down. I would be forced to put my commitment to truth on the line and would also be forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life.
During the fall semester, when we were right in the heart of the season, my moral theology professor gave me an assignment. I had to write a term paper for his class, and he wanted me to find a topic linking moral theology and sport. For a few weeks I looked at different things and he made some suggestions, but nothing stuck. Eventually, through a series of coincidences, I chose to examine Nike's labor practices in light of what is called Catholic Social Teaching.
What I found in the next few weeks while doing my research was that if you wanted to find a company that completely violates the ethos of Catholic Social Teaching, the Nike Corporation would be that company. As my research progressed, what became increasingly disconcerting to me was that St. John's was negotiating a 3.5 million-dollar endorsement contract with Nike. This contract would call for all athletes and coaches to wear and promote Nike's products. Because of my research, I concluded that I could not, in good conscience, become a walking billboard for Nike.
I began to privately and publicly protest the University's involvement with Nike, and I refused to wear the equipment that would be supplied in the coming year. For my actions, I was eventually given an ultimatum by my head coach: "You need to wear this equipment and drop this issue publicly, or resign." I couldn't believe that, at a Catholic university, I was being told to violate the dictates of my conscience. Furthermore, I was being forced to choose between my commitment to social justice and a commitment to a company that has been one of the most flagrant violators of human rights. St. John's stance did not change, and I was forced to resign from my position.
News of this spread fast from our small Queens, NY campus and news stories appeared in the NY Times, Newsday, the Daily News, and other major publications. It was also a feature story on HBO's Real Sports, ESPN's Sports Center, and NBC's EXTRA. I soon found myself as a featured speaker at a number of prestigious Universities, including the University of Notre Dame, Princeton University and even St John's Law School!
When I would give these talks, there seemed to be two statements that were repeatedly made by less-informed, conservative types. First they would say, "Those are great jobs for 'those people.'" And they would also comment that $1.25 a day isn't much in the US, but in Indonesia, that is a fantastic wage. Now I knew from my research that this was certainly not the case, but I also knew that I would have to take some type of radical action to get people here in the US to realize that these statements were just not true.
My first attempt at addressing these questions was asking Nike for a job in one of their contractor's factories. Not surprisingly, they declined. So, I knew I had to create some kind of action that would allow people here to not only understand what the men and women working in Nike's factories in places like Indonesia are going through, but action that would also outrage them to the point of taking immediate action. A fellow activist who wanted to create some kind of online project that would bridge the gap between the workers in developing countries and consumers here in the USA planted an idea in my mind that eventually blossomed into the Olympic Living Wage Project.
I knew that there was almost 10 years of research that was most condemning to Nike's operations in developing countries. The campaign that focused around these studies had some impact, but it was glacial at best. How could we get American consumers to relate to the suffering of "those people" who make the shoes and clothes they wear?
Since Nike would not allow me to work in the factory, I would do the next best thing. I would go live on the wages and in the conditions of the workers and document the whole thing on the Internet and with the latest digital technology. That was the plan. So, I organized some of my closest friends and initiated the Olympic Living Wage Project.
The team was set and on a shoestring budget of a few thousand dollars of private donations and far too many charges on my credit cards we were off to Tangerang, Indonesia.
Indonesia, about as far from the familiarity of the east coast that we could get. The reality of the volatility of Indonesia set in on our second day in Jakarta when we were two blocks away from a bomb blast that killed two people and injured dozens. What the hell had I gotten us into?!
We eventually made our way to Tangerang, an industrial suburb that is home to the factories that produce for Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Fila, Lotto, Old Navy, the Gap, Levis, Ralph Lauren, etc. You name the major brand - they are producing in Tangerang. We set up shop in a 9x9 cement box, with a shelf-paper lined floor and two thin mats to sleep. We would call this home for the next thirty days. Home. In a neighborhood lined with putrid open sewers, riddle with piles of burning garbage, and pollution you could cut through, we would spend the next month trying to survive on a $1.25 a day.
We needed to do just that, survive. A $1.25 a day... it is a starvation wage, I know, we starved on it, we spent most of the month exhausted and painfully hungry and lost 25 pounds.
Although we set out with a focus on Nike, we quickly came to realize that most if not all of the sporting goods multinationals producing in Indonesia, including industry giants Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, are exploiting their workers. Given the first hand experience of the human impact of these companies' labor practices I can tell you that we will continue to work to bring the stories of these workers to the world. They are not just 'factory workers', they are fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters. We will strive to give them a voice to let the world know that they are suffering and in need of justice.
I am now on a National Speaking Tour in the U.S. with the project's associate director, Leslie Kretzu and will be speaking at Colleges and Universities as well as at High Schools, Churches, and Union Halls. We began our tour on October 19, 2000 at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and have events scheduled in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Delaware, and will be scheduling events in the West and South of the U.S. in the coming months.
You need to take action on this issue! American based multinationals are outsourcing to countries like Indonesia where labor and environmental laws are lax and poorly enforced. By operating in countries such as this they can circumvent the labor and environmental laws that we Americans democratically established in the United States and value dearly.
Also, some of their (Nike, Adidas, Reebok, etc.) business practices violate sections of ratified treaties of the United Nations including the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations' International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
We are calling on Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), who chairs the Subcommittee On International Operations and Human Rights, to call a hearing to investigate this issue and propose legislation that will keep the exploitative practices of companies like these in check. This is a crucial step in the campaign to ensure worker's rights are internationally respected.
Despite what companies like Nike will tell you, the most viable solutions for positively impacting the lives of factory workers should come from the workers themselves.
The workers and union organizers they met with during their stay in Indonesia are asking for the following:
All photos by Leslie Kretzu