On January 11 Joseph Ha, a Nike vice president, sent what he thought was a confidential letter to Cu Thi Hau, Vietnam’s highest-ranking labor official. In it, Ha blasted a number of human rights and labor groups that have been working to improve labor conditions in Nike’s overseas factories and expressed admiration for Vietnam’s authoritarian system. “A few U.S. human rights groups, as well as a Vietnamese refugee who is engaged in human rights activities, are not friends of Vietnam,” wrote Ha to the Vietnamese official. The “ultimate goal” of these groups, Ha warned, is not to help Vietnamese apparel workers improve their living standards but to turn Vietnam into “a so-called ‘democratic’ society, modeled after the U.S.”–a charge that, as Nike knows, amounts to subversion in Vietnam. Nike, Ha assured his correspondent, has no such intentions. “No nation needs to copy any other nation,” he explained. “Each nation has its own internal political system. Nike firmly believes this.”
So thrilled was the Vietnamese government by Ha’s letter that, unbeknownst to him, it printed it in a state-owned newspaper. Word leaked to the BBC in London and shortly thereafter to the Financial Times, whereupon Nike began wiping the egg off its face. “Nike regrets that excerpts from private correspondence…were interpreted as our corporate attitude towards human rights groups,” wrote Nike spokeswoman Hannah Jones in a letter to the Financial Times. As proof of Nike’s enlightened labor practices, Jones cited the company’s participation in “Bill Clinton’s Apparel Industry Partnership.”
For many observers–for very different reasons–Jones’s words were salt in the wound. The White House Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP)–an antisweatshop initiative endorsed by the Clinton Administration, Nike and other apparel companies and NGOs like the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the International Labor Rights Fund–has been something of a lightning rod in the labor community [see Alan Howard, “Partners in Sweat,” December 28, 1998]. The US apparel union UNITE and other labor and religious organizations dropped out of the AIP in November, complaining that the agreement granted corporations like Nike far too much control over the monitoring process and that it lacked strong provisions on livable wages and the right to organize. These defectors watched in horror (if not exactly surprise) as Nike pointed to the AIP as evidence of its commitment to improving labor conditions in overseas factories.
Meanwhile, to the human rights and labor organizations that signed on to the partnership, the company’s actions were tantamount to betrayal. It was these groups that were singled out in Ha’s letter to the Vietnamese official. Then Nike brazenly invoked its partnership with those very groups as proof of its corporate responsibility. In an irate response in the Financial Times, Pharis Harvey, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, pointed out that the AIP hadn’t even begun to certify whether companies were respecting the rights of workers. “There is no guarantee that Nike will receive such certification,” Harvey fumed. “Therefore…no company should use its participation in the Partnership as evidence of good labour practice.”
Harvey’s outrage is understandable but perhaps a little late. After all, his own organization and other NGOs lent their names to an agreement that many feared would be used by corporations to co-opt and neutralize their critics. This was clearly the aim of Ha’s letter. The “Vietnamese refugee” of the letter is Thuyen Nguyen, the founder of Vietnam Labor Watch, a human rights group responsible for several scathing reports on Nike’s abusive practices in Vietnam, which have included forced overtime and the routine corporal punishment of female workers.
“Once this happened,” says Nguyen of the Nike letter, “the people I work with in Vietnam told me they could no longer monitor Nike factories. It’s too dangerous. Nike has basically equated independent monitoring with political subversion.” Nike has yet to hold a press conference or take out an ad in a Vietnamese newspaper apologizing to Nguyen and retracting its statement that the groups monitoring its factories are subversive. Eyal Press