Since late 2015, Georgetown students have urged University President John J. DeGioia to cut ties with Nike if the company refuses to sign the university’s Licensee Code of Conduct. That protest culminated earlier today with 17 members of workers’ rights advocacy group Georgetown Solidarity Committee staging a sit-in at the president’s office.
The GSC accuses the brand, which produces clothing for the university bookstore, of not adequately protecting its factory workers in South and Southeast Asia. GSC concludes that unless Nike agrees to external audits from the Worker Rights Consortium, Georgetown should not renew its licensing contract set to expire at the end of the month.
However, after interning at MAS Holdings, a $1.6 billion Sri Lankan clothing manufacturer which sources a number of products to Nike, I find this position seriously flawed.
I witnessed how Nike operates on the ground, and what I found surprised me: In addition to well-lit, air-conditioned factories, MAS gives its employees, or “team members,” free transportation and meals, and in some cases health care and child care. Although average entry-level pay is low at $126 per month, it exceeds Sri Lanka’s minimum wage by 80 percent.
MAS’s Go Beyond female empowerment program likewise provides women at the company with free English courses, financial management training and other services. MAS Fabrics Matrix, a knitting center for Nike Flyknit shoes, boasts a one-megawatt solar power complex with nearly 4,000 panels.
All in all, 41 percent of MAS’s energy comes from sustainable sources — no doubt contributing to Nike’s ranking first in overall sustainability among its North American apparel and footwear competitors, according to a 2015 list by Morgan Stanley.
My background lies in human rights, particularly in human trafficking. I sit on two NGO boards —Nomi Network and the Scalabrini International Migration Network—enjoy close relationships with numerous activists and have spoken at the White House, United Nations and Vatican. I also recognize the brand’s dedication to transparency, expanded audit system and founder-level support for the Fair Labor Association, all achievements that lead Business Insider to declare its sweatshop days over last year.
Nevertheless, Nike remains a work in progress. That is why, since 2002, the Fair Labor Association has overseen or performed 211 independent factory audits on Nike suppliers. Most recently, the FLA and its accredited associates conducted three assessments on the company’s Hansae partner in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, identifying a host of noncompliance issues. Some of them have since been addressed; the FLA’s October 2016 visit, which included WRC inspectors, confirmed as much.
Hansae’s improvement is encouraging, despite revelations of new problems. Contrary to popular belief, fixing compliance issues does not happen overnight. It takes time. Instead of attacking Nike for not being good enough, students should applaud its progress and urge continued vigilance. After all, working with companies is far more effective than working against them, and protests rarely help.
What happens if Georgetown drops Nike, Nike ends its relationship with Hansae and Hansae downsizes? Vietnamese workers lose. That is certainly not what the GSC wants. So, I propose a compromise — Georgetown and Nike should work together.
If the company cannot accede to the university’s code of conduct immediately, then create an action plan, no longer than five years, to get there. Nike is good at heart, the kind of brand Hoyas should enthusiastically support. I know this because I lived and breathed its factories in Sri Lanka for two months. I also know Nike has problems, and tearing up its contract will not solve them.
I understand GSC’s frustration with Nike. I feel it, too. But we have to be reasonable. Confrontation will not work. Collaboration will.
Patrick Gage is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.