Fighting sweatshop labor, just do it

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October 28, 2011

12:48 AM

The three-foot-six bundle of energy bounds up the hill of rubber, shoe parts and scrap materials, searching for her brother through the smoldering haze of smoke. Hidden amongst the rubble, a black emblem resembling a check mark rests innocently, undermining the destruction its presence has wrought in the country.

At lunch time, a large bite of beans and rice should crowd this seven-year-old girl’s mouth as she animatedly discusses the hottest topic at the school cafeteria table. Instead, as her mother and father slave through another 13 hour shift at the Nike sweatshop factory in Tangerang, Indonesia, a large gulp of toxic smoke fills her lungs as she plays, ensuring the chest infection that will result her future confinement to a hospital bed.
AMP invited the founder and captain of Team Sweat, Jim Keady, to speak in the Commonwealth Auditorium Oct. 26 about the unjust, inhumane treatment of workers in Nike sweatshops and his goal to guarantee a living wage for their survival.

“I had no plans for becoming a full-time social justice activist,” Keady said.

As a graduate student in theology and a soccer coach at St. John’s University, Keady uncovered the abuses committed by this top sports equipment company through a class assignment. Then the St. John’s athletic department began to discuss a $3.5 million dollar endorsement deal with Nike. Keady was forced to decide between his job, which would require him to become a walking advertisement for Nike, or his convictions about the low wages and severe working conditions experienced by its workers.

“I felt the university was compromising what they stood for as a Catholic institution, and I knew it was time for me, as someone who had been going to Catholic school for 18 years, to put my money where my mouth was in terms of what I claimed to believe,” Keady said.

Instead of merely researching and organizing a fund for sweatshop workers, Keady traveled to Tangerang for a month to live on the $1.25 per day wages and to witness firsthand the situations about which he had read. Chair of AMP’s Contemporary and Cultural Issues Committee Chelsea Moubarak ’12 described this as the primary reason for inviting Keady to campus.

“In addition to his passion and his interest, he’s had personal experiences that add a certain real-life perspective to what he has to say,” Moubarak said.

Maggie Scott, AMP’s graduate assistant for programming, agreed that Keady’s work had increased due to his experiences with the starving workers who battle harassment, forced overtime and grimy living conditions on a daily basis in order to produce athletic gear for Nike.

“It gives him credibility and brings an extra element to the presentation,” Scott said. “It’s neat to see that he discovered these things about society that completely threw him off of his path.”

Moubarak also pointed out the relevance of the issue for students.

“We need students to know that this issue affects their lives because they’re using these products and they’re playing a role in this system,” Moubarak said.

His time spent living in such close quarters with the families in Tangerang enabled Keady and his team to see that Nike’s decision to maximize profits at any cost to humanity affects not only the workers, but also their families.

“I don’t think it’s a far stretch for these kids to be able to eat healthy food for three meals a day and to have a home that’s free of rats and cockroaches—especially when their parents are producing wealth for the most profitable sportswear company in the world that boasted $2.1 billion in profits last year,” Keady said.
At the same time, Keady explained that there is a culture of fear permeating the country that discourages any kind of change through unionization, protest or public meetings.

“They want to tell you the truth and fight for their rights, but they also want
their children to have a father or mother the next day,” the informational movie said.

While in Indonesia, Keady shared with workers that athletes like LeBron James earn the same for wearing Nike gear in one game as one worker makes through 9.5 years of 13 hour, six-day work-weeks. Keady relayed one specific story that continually drives him to spread awareness.

“As an athlete in particular, I felt so embarrassed to tell [the lady] that athletes don’t care about how [she has] to live to make them products that we all compete in,” Keady said. “But I am fighting to change that.”
By visiting schools across the country, Keady hopes to reach athletes in particular, who wear the Nike swoosh in connection with their athletic programs in particular.

“There was at least one student athlete in the audience tonight,” Keady said. “That’s one more athlete that tomorrow, when he laces up his shoes for practice — at a minimum, he’s going to think about the people who made them.”

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