KHAN: Purchasing adidas products supports unfair labor practices abroad

By: Shariq Khan
In mid-August, I walked into the Nebraska Union bookstore to pick up some last-minute supplies for my chemistry class. Immediately, the aisles of eye-catching adidas sportswear drew me in. While I don’t usually consider myself an impulse buyer, I couldn’t help but ogle at their chicness and wonder whether I could get away with spending my parents’ money on an overpriced Husker football jersey. A quick glance at the price tag revealed that the jersey was “Made in China.” Blech. I remembered why adidas, a German company with headquarters near Munich, Germany, chooses to manufacture their products in third-world countries like China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia – weakly enforced labor laws and low – even by local standards – wages.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s current contract with adidas, set to expire in 2013, will bring $22 million to the school while Husker athletes act as biological billboards for the company. Wearing adidas clothing is a sales pitch for contemporary wage slavery that I refuse to participate in.
For the past few years, non-government organizations and activists have criticized adidas for the “harsh conditions” in their contracted factories, particularly the situation at the PT Kizone factory in Indonesia. At this factory, 2,800 workers made clothes for companies like Nike and adidas for 60 U.S. cents an hour, which is below the Indonesian minimum wage. Employees faced severe punishment for refusing to work overtime, for being a few minutes late and for attempting to form a union. Urban Community Mission (UCM) claims verbal and physical abuse are rampant in the factory and that children below age 14 work illegally with dangerous machinery. At a hearing of the European Parliament, UCM said, “Wages are still below the legal minimum set by the government, the number of hours people work exceeds the legal maximum and people are paid less than a dollar a day.”
When the factory closed in April 2011, $3.3 million in severance was left unpaid, according to the Worker Rights Consortium. While Nike and the Dallas Cowboys, two of the three companies employing the PT Kizone workers, eventually paid their share, adidas refused to pay the $1.8 million they owe to the laid off workers.
On June 12 of this year, adidas offered to issue food vouchers to the 2,800 workers valued at about $86,000, less than five percent of the $1.8 million in severance pay they are entitled to. The workers’ union responded in a letter to adidas which stated, “Our children are hungry, but food vouchers will not keep our children in school or our families in our homes. We call on adidas to ensure we receive all the money we are legally owed and that we earned making adidas products.” The fact adidas recognizes that the former PT Kizone workers don’t have enough money for food, yet still refuses to offer anything but token monetary relief, reveals much about the inhumanity of the treatment of the garment workers of Indonesia.
adidas’ primary argument is that they can’t be held liable for the contracted suppliers’ labor practices. They ignore their obvious responsibility as the indirect wage-payers to the PT Kizone workers. While some minor steps have been taken by adidas to aid the workers, the company explains that the only reason they take any action is because “it’s the right thing to do,” not because they carry any responsibility.
They also argue that they ended their contract with the PT Kizone factory before it closed down. However, in other documents, such as their publicly available list of suppliers, adidas maintained PT Kizone as one of the company’s factories.
Student groups and NGOs are pressuring university administrations to reevaluate their relationship with companies with unethical practices. On Oct. 1 of this year, Cornell became the first university to sever ties with adidas for its role in the PT Kizone affair. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with numerous other universities, is also poised to take similar action. UW-Madison ended its contract with Nike in April 2010 because of unrelated labor standard violations at two of its foreign factories. In November 2009, 100 colleges signed a pact to end their contracts with Russell Athletics, another sports apparel company, because of its immediate closure of a newly unionized factory in Honduras. This pressure prompted Russell to rehire the 1,200 unionized workers. Clearly, sustained pressure from universities can change the policies of their contracted clothing companies.
UNL can’t turn a blind eye to the plight of the workers in factories which make its apparel. By purchasing adidas merchandise, UNL implicitly supports the company and its mistreatment of workers. The money unpaid to the PT Kizone workers follows a direct line from the factory to Germany to university bookstores. The university can’t condone these egregious violations of human rights and labor standards by contracting with adidas or any other companies with similar practices.
Sports apparel companies which use fair labor practices present a viable alternative. Alta Gracia, a company with factories in the Dominican Republic, supplies apparel to more than 600 college campuses while paying their workers more than three times the local minimum wage. The Workers Rights Consortium has certified Alta Gracia as one of the few international apparel companies meeting rigorous standards for ethical production.
So what can be done? Affecting the world of a transnational, multi-million dollar business may seem like a daunting task. The “shikata ga nai” – “it can’t be helped” – attitude is attractive, but universities around the nation have started to make changes for the better. The university, and the students who are its patrons, have an obligation to refuse to wear or to purchase products from companies, like adidas, using sweatshop labor.
Shariq Khan is a freshman biology and philosophy major. Follow him on Twitter at @shariq_mansoor and reach him at

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