Honduran Workers Demand $2.2 Million from Nike at Portland Area Workers' Rights Board Hearing
Last night, just a few miles away from Nike’s global headquarters, two Honduran workers spoke out strongly about how Nike's destructive labor practices have hurt them, their families and their co-workers. Gina Cano and Lowlee Urquía testified in front of members of the Portland Area Workers' Rights Board and a crowd of more than 100 community members.
Both women had worked in Nike-contracted factories for many years in Honduras before being laid off without notice, and without legally mandated severance pay in January 2009. "We're here in Oregon, the home of Nike, because we want to put a face to the consequences of Nike's behavior", said Lowlee Urquía. "We're saying to Nike that it is responsible every step of the way."
The two women represented over 1,700 workers who are owed $2.2 million in severance pay. The workers are also owed health care premiums, which were deducted from their wages but never paid to the health care system. This meant that workers could not access health care in the four months before the closure. At least one worker, who had been receiving cancer treatment, died because of this denial of care, according to the worker testimony.
The two workers and expert witness Jeff Ballinger, a long-time anti-sweatshop activist, told the story of how the two plants produced Nike product for 13 years before the closure. Nike had contracted with three apparel companies, Haddad, Anvil, and New Holland Lingerie, who in turn had contracted with the two factories, Hugger de Honduras and Vision Tex. Workers at both plants started organizing unions just prior to the closure.
Nike was invited to offer their perspective, but chose not to come and testify, stating in a letter that this open community hearing was “not the most effective forum for constructive dialogue.” In correspondence with United Students Against Sweatshops, Nike claimed it did not have significant production in the two factories, and said except for one batch of orders, the plants did not produce clothing for the university market.
The two workers strongly refuted this claim. Gina Cano told the Workers' Rights Board that, "the Nike Code of Conduct was posted all over the walls in Spanish and English." Cano told the panel that her factory made 60 to 100% Nike apparel. Urquía testified that Vision Tex made about 80% Nike apparel. Both plants received yearly inspections from Nike auditors. Nike's Code of Conduct binds their contractors to pay wages and benefits as required by local law. The posted Codes of Conduct were "purely decorative,” Cano told the WRB that. “They didn't mean anything."
Workers' Rights Board panel members were moved by the testimony. Francisco Lopez, Executive Director of CAUSA Oregon and a Salvadoran immigrant, said, "It seems that Nike is the new United Fruit Company,” referring to the latter’s notorious exploitation of Central American workers in the 1950s. “It's the same story, not bananas, but apparel. This is an opportunity for us to challenge Nike...all the money that [former Nike CEO Phil Knight] gives our University system is made on the backs of workers."
The panel issued a statement finding that since Nike's Code of Conduct binds its contractors to follow the Honduran law, it is responsible for making sure the workers are paid the severance owed them. The Workers' Rights Board panel will seek to meet with Nike to communicate its findings, as well as issuing a report from the hearing to help educate the public about these issues. Workers' Rights Board members and the Honduran workers will address the upcoming May Day march about these issues.
The case was brought to the Workers’ Rights Board by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), the national organization of college students organizing for the rights of garment workers and campus workers. USAS organizers have traveled cross-country with Cano and Urquía, as part of the campaign they’re calling “Just Pay It.”
The Portland Area Workers’ Rights Board panel was made up of Armando Gonzales, a leader with statewide MeCHA, Francisco Lopez, Executive Director of CAUSA Oregon, Joice Taylor, CEO of Global Management Strategies and chair of the N/NE Business Alliance, Deacon Marla McGarry-Lawrence of St Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Dr Martin Hart-Landsberg, Professor of Economics at Lewis and Clark College and Steve Novick, two-time winner of Willamette Week’s Activist of the Year award.
The Workers’ Rights Board is a project of Portland Jobs With Justice, a coalition of 85 unions and community groups working together in a campaign for workers’ rights.