Nearly a year ago, I flew to Vietnam to investigate the working and living conditions in Nike’s supply chain for an Investigative Fund story for Slate. The eighteen women I interviewed, employed at five different Nike suppliers, complained about excessive work pressure, wage cheating, health risks, intimidation from their managers and wages so low, they said they would need to earn about three times as much to make ends meet for their families. These problems were typical of Nike contract factories and those of other major brands and retailers across Vietnam, Scott Nova told me at the time .
According to Nova, who heads the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring agency, his organization had found “some of the most egregious abuses we have seen in any of our investigations around the world” in the Hansae factory, another Vietnam-based Nike supplier, where workers went on strike in October and November 2015. The WRC’s interviews with Hansae workers revealed workers “routinely collapsing unconscious at their work stations from overwork and excessive heat, then being forced to return to work minutes after waking up; managers hurling epithets, often vulgar, at the mainly female workforce; absurd work rules, like a ban on yawning; the routine firing of pregnant workers; harassing workers for using the bathroom, including photographing them when they enter and exit; illegal overtime requirements that were not waived even for a worker who needed to attend a family funeral.”
Georgetown licensing agreements requires licensees such as Nike to grant the WRC access to its factories and carry out inspections, but unlike Georgetown’s other licensees, Nike hasn’t signed this agreement and had refused to let the WRC enter Hansae.
After a year of pressuring the company, Nike finally granted access to the factory. The resulting report, released earlier this month, lists chronic verbal abuse, forced overtime, illegal denial of sick leave, extortion of workers by managers, and health and safety violations.
To some students at Georgetown, which reportedly holds Nike’s largest Air Jordan contract in the US and which sources varsity collegiate apparel through Nike, this was unacceptable. On Thursday, December 8 at 10 AM, 17 students stormed the Office of the President, vowing not to leave unless the university cut ties with Nike.
“At this point, Nike has proven that it’s incapable of respecting human rights,” Shilpa Rao, a freshman in Georgetown and a member of the student-based labor group Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC), wrote me in an email from the foyer outside the President’s office that day, where she organized campus solidarity actions with other students.
“Georgetown, with its Just Employment Policy and commitment to Jesuit values, prides itself on being a university-leader on labor and human rights,” Vincent DeLaurentis, a senior at the university and activist affiliated with United Students Against Sweatshops, wrote me. “The contract with Nike is a stain on this legacy and an embarrassment for this university. If the administrations are unwilling to put workers rights ahead of their own interests, we as students will force them to.”
“Solidarity between students and workers is an essential tool for promoting global labor justice,” DeLaurentis wrote me. “As a student, I want my university to live out its values in public and stand with workers to end these unjust violations. Workers in Vietnam walked out of the Hansae factory without any labor protections and with real risk that they would face violence. This is the least we can do as students to stand in solidarity and support their courageous actions.”
By Friday, nine students had left. The eight still occupying the office received disciplinary action. “It’s a disgrace that Georgetown is willing to ignore Nike’s flagrant violation of international labor standards, while using the Student Code of Conduct to punish our peers,” wrote DeLaurentis. “Who are their loyalties with?”
DeLaurentis says it’s unacceptable that Nike only grants access to approved inspectors, such as its own internal auditors and the Better Work program of the International Labour Organization, while shutting out an independent agency like the WRC. The violations detected by WRC were not identified as issues by other auditors.
After some 35 hours, Georgetown administrators assented and agreed the university would only renew Nike’s contract if the company signed Georgetown’s code of conduct.
Around 8:30pm that Friday, the sit-in ended, but according to DeLaurentis the work is far from done. As part of the United Students Against Sweatshops network, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee will keep the pressure on Nike with their #JustDoTheRightThing campaign. As for Georgetown, wrote DeLaurentis, “we will be closely watching the administration’s actions closely to ensure compliance with this agreement.”