The student labor rights movement won a big victory yesterday when Nike agreed to pay a total of $1.5 million to 1,800 workers in Honduras laid off when two of its subcontractors shut down last year. In a statement, Nike also said it would cover the former employees’ health insurance for a year and offer them priority hiring and training.
For 18 months, the global apparel giant had resisted calls to pay the nearly $2 million in severance and unemployment aid legally owed the workers, insisting that responsibility fell upon the subcontractors. Nike’s about-face came in response to sustained pressure from United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a nationwide advocacy group. USAS held protests at Nike retailers and organized speaking engagements throughout the country as part of its “Just Pay It” campaign. Pressure from several universities also helped pushed Nike to settle. The University of Wisconsin, Madison terminated its licensing contract and Cornell threatened to follow suit.
This latest victory comes on the heels of another triumph for USAS last November, when Russell Athletic rehired 1,200 workers in Honduras, whose factory the company closed soon after the shop unionized. USAS had enlisted over 100 universities in a boycott of Russell.
Student involvement in labor rights campaigns, specifically the anti-sweatshop movement, peaked a decade ago, when undergrads across the nation organized sit-ins to push their schools to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent organization that monitors the conditions under which college apparel is produced. Today, the WRC is affiliated with 186 US colleges and universities.
The issue of sweatshops in the developing world is complex with prominent liberal writers Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, consistently defending overseas sweatshops, as essentially the least bad option for impoverished workers in developing countries and the only real path to economic growth (and better jobs) for those countries in the future.
But, free-market arguments notwithstanding, USAS’s victories clearly indicate the efficacy of putting pressure on exploitative corporations to gain higher wages and better working conditions for its workers, which neither Krugman, nor Kristof is against.
Large corporations, as proven time and again, operate with great sensitivity to their own images—images that will hopefully attract even greater public scrutiny in light of recent press coverage thanks to the work of USAS and its allies.