Swooshed in Ottawa


OTTAWA -- Under fire for its treatment of workers in Asia, athletic footwear giant Nike has pulled the plug on its proposed sponsorship deal with the City of Ottawa to build a $50,000 rubberized gym floor for a local community center.

"We will rescind our offer to build this floor," Nike's Director of Global Community Affairs Doug Stamm told a stunned Ottawa City Council Committee on March 11.

The company announced it would instead build a floor for the Ottawa Boys and Girls Club in another part of the city.

The rubberized floor would have replaced the existing concrete floor at the Carlingwood Community Center, and is part of Nike's ongoing programs aimed at benefitting low-income communities in North America.

"I wish we had the Nike floor," says 15-year-old Wayde Richer, one of the youths who uses the Carlingwood gym. "Our gym floor is very slippery [and] uneven."

Ottawa passed a policy last year that states that all its sponsorship arrangements "will reflect its recognition of, belief in and commitment to human rights and each person's right to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity."

In March, Councillor Richard Cannings revealed that the City's Community and Social Services Committee was considering the Nike sponsorship at in camera meetings. Referring to the sponsorship deal as "blood money," Cannings argued that given Nike's treatment of workers abroad, the deal breached the City's human rights policy.

Nike has been scrutinized in recent years for alleged abuses of workers' rights at the company's subcontractors in Asia. In 1996, CBS news reported that at a Nike factory in Vietnam, workers earned an average of 20 cents per hour, and a Korean supervisor fled the country after accusations that he sexually molested female workers.

Following the CBS report, a study done for Nike by Ernst & Young, and later leaked to a San-Francisco-based group, found that at another Vietnamese Nike subcontractor, workers were exposed to carcinogens that exceeded local legal standards by 177 times and that more than 100 workers at one section of the plant had respiratory ailments.

Other reports by Vietnamese labor groups in 1997 documented low wages, unsafe working conditions, labor law violations and sexual harassment at various Nike subcontractors.

Workers in other Asian countries have documented similar abuses at Nike factories. In Indonesia, workers have repeatedly charged that Nike fails to pay even the legal minimum wage, which is arguably below subsistence levels.

"In a way I'm happy [Nike rescinded the Ottawa offer], because it was dirty money," says Carl Htu, of the Montreal-based Development & Peace, which is campaigning to improve Nike's human rights practices.

However, Nike's Doug Stamm defended Nike's human rights record. "We're an innovator in protecting worker rights around the world," he told the councillors. He outlined Nike's various human rights measures, including its code of conduct, and studies it had commissioned exonerating company practices.

Some councillors responded favorably to Stamm's presentations. "I'm satisfied that the jobs in Vietnam are good jobs [and] that they are meeting local concerns," says Deputy Mayor Allan Higdon.

"We should have, in Nike's words, 'Just done it,'" adds fellow Councillor Shawn Little, sporting a Nike baseball cap.

Others were less impressed with Nike's abrupt pull-out so quickly after the company's practices were challenged. Councillor Diane Deans was "appalled" by what she termed "a pre-emptive strike" by the company. "Nike is sending a strong message saying 'How dare you question our company.'"

Duff Conacher, coordinator of the Ottawa-based corporate accountability watchdog Democracy Watch, agrees, suggesting that the company's move was "an effort to pit the councillors against the kids" in an attempt to divert attention from the human rights issue.

If this was the company's intention, it succeeded with at least one of the councillors. Karen Howard represents the ward where the gym floor was to be built. When Mike Desautels, a presenter at the meeting from the Canadian Labour Congress raised criticisms about Nike such as the lack of systematic monitoring and enforcement of the company's code of conduct, she asked him dismissively, "Who do you care more about, workers in Asia or children in our community?"

"It's not an answerable question," he responded. "Who do you care more about, your children or your neighbor's children?"

Stamm says Nike did not make the decision to pull out to upstage the Council. "I didn't do it to spite anybody."

But he earlier complained of the "unfair" process adopted by Council in putting the issue of whether to accept the Nike deal to a public hearing. Arguing that Nike did not want to be used as a "political football," Stamm told the councillors, "I do not believe that this is a wise way to resolve as heavy an issue as the treatment of foreign workers."

Overall, the Council Committee members seemed split on Nike's human rights record and whether they should have accepted the sponsorship. In any case, many councillors vowed to consider having the City pay for the floor on its own, Councillor Cannings suggesting it be given "the highest priority."

-- Aaron Freeman