Posted by: ithacaactionnews | May 12, 2010

Cornell Students Ask Nike To “Just Pay It”

By: Jessica Dillon

Cornell students are working to persuade Cornell University to cut their contract with Nike because a Nike subcontractor did not pay over 2 million dollars in severance to Honduran workers, according to Marlena Fontes, a member of Cornell Students Against Sweatshops and Cornell Organization for Labor Action.

“That’s peanuts to a corporation like Nike, but incredibly important to workers,” she said.

Fontes said Nike broke Honduran law and the Cornell code of conduct that says Cornell will only source from responsible corporations that do not use sweatshop labor. She said the organizations are responding by calling on Cornell to stay true to this code and end their contract with Nike. She said this makes up the Just Pay It Nike campaign.

Erin Dobson, a spokesperson for Nike, said they would not release any more information than what was in their press release. The press release said Nike believes the subcontractor is responsible for the issue in Honduras because the subcontractor employed the workers and therefore Nike will not be paying severance to them.

However, Nike will be setting up programs soon along with two Honduran apparel contract factories and local service providers to train those who are unemployed technical skills so they can compete for jobs. The program will also provide training in micro-enterprise development for those who wish to start their own businesses.

Larry Quant, the associate director of athletics director for financial operations at Cornell, said Cornell’s agreement with Nike is beneficial because Nike provides Cornell with things like uniforms and practice equipment at a discounted price. However, he said he understands the issues surrounding the workers in Honduras.

“We certainly have the opportunity to buy that stuff from other vendors, but it would strictly be a financial cost to us,” he said.

Quant also represents the athletic department on the Cornell Licensing Oversight Committee. This committee is made up of students, faculty, a representative from the Cornell bookstore and others. He said the committee met several times to discuss the issues and made a recommendation to the senior administration at Cornell. He said that not everyone agreed on the recommendation, but would not go in to further detail.

“The recommendation of the committee was to suspend any agreements with Nike until such time as the issues in Honduras were solved to the satisfaction of the workers. It was not a unanimous vote,” Quant said.

Andrew Wolf, member of CSAS said the organization is an affiliate of the organization of United Students Against Sweatshops, which is made up of colleges across the country. He said there are two components to the program. He said students try to convince workers to sign a purchasing code of conduct that designates the rules that they require from the people that are given licensing agreements to use the school’s logo to produce their clothing. Wolf said the second part of the program is that schools help to enforce these rules by partnering with the Worker’s Rights Consortium. He said this is an independent agency that travels to factories around the world and investigates their labor rights and writes reports about what is happening there.

He said the Cornell chapter is leading the campaign against Nike along with COLA and 30 student organizations have endorsed the campaign. Wolf said the groups are trying to get people to sign a petition asking Cornell’s president to end the contract and 5 percent of the student body has signed it.

Wolf said CSAS hosted the Working Out For Worker’s Rights campaign last week. He said students rallied on Cornell’s campus and did aerobics and wore 80s style clothing in front of one of the libraries. They also got people to sign the petition there.

“That was really effective because by doing something fun, people were interested in what you were doing instead of just running away from you. That was a good way to draw people in and draw lots of attention,” he said.

Linda Holzbaur, community organizer for the Ithaca Worker’s Center, said there is a problem with the international policy of the United States because it is based on things like NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. She said this allows global corporations to move their factories to a different location with few labor laws, making it easy for them to oppress the workers there. She said this also ties in to the problem of immigration in the United States.

“That affects not only the people in those countries and their working conditions and salary [by] bringing everybody down, but it also does push a whole lot of people to immigrate to the United States looking for a better life and here there are undocumented workers facing the same or worse treatments than they were getting back at home,” she said.

Maria Coles, chair of the city administration committee, said she has been working with Cornell students to pass a sweat free policy. This policy says that the city of Ithaca will not supply any uniforms to workers if they were made in a sweatshop. The policy also says the city of Ithaca will only buy from companies that treat workers with fairness and human decency and pay whatever the salary is in that country.

Coles said it will discussed and decided whether to adopt the resolution at the next city administration committee meeting. After the meeting, she said the city attorney and his staff will develop that policy and she will provide the drafted policy to COLA to make sure everything has been included. Coles and some members of the Ithaca Common Council will discuss the policy with the student group and then the city administration, which is made up of five Ithaca Common Council members, will vote on it. If it is approved by three votes, it will move on to the rest of Common Council to vote on for adoption.

Svante Maverick, an Ithaca Common Council member, said he thinks the students are doing a great job and anything students can do to hold corporations accountable is a good thing.

“They’ve had fantastic steps this past year. They’ve proved that they can have a real difference if they just localize and stay energized and stay active,” he said.

Coles said she has already received positive feedback from a few people in her ward that are happy the Ithaca Common Council wants to adopt this resolution.

“It is absolutely horrendous that there are still people who are treated as if they were slaves in various clothing factories. It’s an abomination. It’s a human rights issue. It’s a worker’s rights issue,” she said.

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