American Labor Activist Just Does It for Indonesia Workers

By webadmin on 10:33 pm Feb 06, 2012
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Ulma Haryanto

A towering blond, 40-year old Jim Keady’s presence is a stark contrast to the group he has fervently defended for the past decade.

Thousands of workers from a Nike plant in Serang, Banten province, have Keady to thank for a victory against their employer, who withheld overtime pay worth nearly $1 million.

Nikomas, a supplier for athletic wear giant Nike, has also promised to create a reporting mechanism for labor-related complaints in coordination with the National Workers Union (SPN).

To Keady, who operates a nongovernmental organization called Team Sweat, this was not the first victory, but it was certainly the most symbolic since Nike had more than 30 suppliers in the country for its footwear and apparel, employing at least 140,000 workers.

When Nike’s sweatshop issues went public in the 1990s, Keady was a semi-professional footballer and coach at St. John University in New York. He was also pursuing a graduate degree in theology.

“In my first class, I started writing a paper about Nike’s labor practices and my professor urged me to find a topic dealing with moral theology and sports,” Keady said. “I started hearing the stories about Nike sweatshop issues in newspapers, so I started doing some research and learned about how Nike was exploiting the poor workers in places like Indonesia, Vietnam, China.”

At about the same time, his university’s athletic department started negotiating a $3.5 million sponsorship contract with Nike.

Believing that Nike’s corporate practices were far from his Catholic religious ideals, he lobbied school officials to reject the contract until he was eventually given an ultimatum: “Wear Nike and drop the issue or get out.”

He said he became the first athlete in the world to say no to Nike because of the sweatshop issue.

In 2000, he moved to a village in Tangerang to live with factory workers for a month and try to survive on the wage that they were paid.

“I slept a thin mat on the floor like workers do, with rats stampeding over my ceiling at night and cockroaches crawling over me,” he said.

After a month of living on what he called a “Nike sweatshop wage,” Keady said he lost 11 kilograms.

“I came to understand, in the most rudimentary of ways, the reality the workers face every day,” he said. “Everything from making decisions, ‘Do I buy a razor and shaving cream or do I eat. If I have a headache, do I buy aspirin or do I buy dinner?’

“And I was just taking care of myself on that wage. When you add kids into the mix [the questions became], ‘Do I send my child to school or do I get an extra kilogram of rice from the market so that we could have a better meal?’

“These are the horrific choices that our workers have to make and they continue to wallow in abject poverty while Nike’s profit has soared.”

And so what Keady initially thought was going to be a few months of advocacy work for employees at Nike plants in Indonesia has turned into a full-time job for the past 12 years.

“I promised the workers that I met, the women and men that are producing the real wealth for Nike, I said, ‘I’m going to go home and tell your stories and I’ll try to advocate for you and see if we can get some changes made.’ ”

Part of what motivated him, he said, was the fact that top Nike executives have seven-figure salaries.

In 2011, Forbes listed Nike chief executive Mark Parker as having an annual compensation of $14.53 million or $43.83 million over five years, making him the 97th highest-paid CEO in the world. Keady said Parker’s compensation package went up 80 percent about a year ago.

“When I think if the CEO is able to have that kind of increase, I think the workers deserve an increase as well. Without them, nobody at Nike is making any money,” he said. “I’ve returned to Indonesia year in and year out to continue to help organize workers and help them to develop their voice so that they can speak up for themselves.”

The hard work is paying off.

Though the Rp 8.1 billion ($907,000) in back wages they won for the 4,437 Serang workers doesn’t sound like much for nearly a year of negotiations, Keady said it was significant.

“It is almost two months of wages. That may not seem significant to Americans or someone living in Jakarta, but for workers that have been living on the edge every month just trying to make ends meet, it’s a big deal,” he said.

“It’s also about moving forward. This jam molor issue [forced overtime] is not going to happen anymore. There’s a new mechanism in place to report it.”

The Associated Press has reported that after years of controversy, Nike in 2005 admitted finding “abusive treatment,” either physical or verbal, in many of its plants. The complaints ranged from work weeks that exceeded 60 hours to being forbidden to go to the restroom.

Keady said that when he first came here, a law that guaranteed two paid off days every month for female workers during menstruation was hardly implemented.

“Back in 2000, for a Nike factory worker to get those days off, they had to go to the factory clinic, pull down their pants and show blood on their underwear to prove they were menstruating. That doesn’t happen anymore,” he said.

“Back then, three different workers from Nikomas were threatened at gunpoint, one threatened at knifepoint and one who was a chairman was beaten in the head with a machete and left to die in the gutter. That level of physical intimidation at factory workers doesn’t happen anymore.”

Keady is currently working on a book and a script for a documentary based on his experience advocating for workers’ rights in Indonesia.