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As world watches soccer's Cup, Nike critic sees red

Labor activist Jim Keady says Indonesians who make team jerseys for the company are living in poverty. Nike says it has sought to improve worker welfare.

June 28, 2010|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Jim Keady with a U.S. soccer shirt. "Despite their low wages, they still have immense pride in their work," he says of the workers.
Jim Keady with a U.S. soccer shirt. "Despite their low wages, they… (John M. Glionna / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Jakarta, Indonesia —

Like any die-hard sports fan, Jim Keady eagerly anticipated soccer's World Cup.

But he isn't at home watching the matches. Instead, the 38-year-old New Jersey native has been in Indonesia, talking to the workers who make the Nike jerseys worn by nine of the teams in the tournament.

For years, the former professional goalie has waged a one-man campaign to highlight Nike's labor practices, complaining that the company pays Indonesian workers low wages to stitch together the uniforms that have made the company the world's most successful sports garment manufacturer.

Sitting at an outdoor coffeehouse here, Keady produced several Nike jerseys in Cup team colors. "These jerseys are real wealth you can touch," he said. "They're making Nike and the players rich while the workers who make them continue to grind out lives of abject poverty."

Keady's campaign goes back to 1997 when, as a soccer coach for St. John's University in New York, he questioned the school's plans to sign a $3.5-million endorsement deal with Nike.

The devout Catholic insisted that the contract would be hypocritical for a Christian university. "I was told to drop the issue or get out," he said. "So I resigned in protest."

The showdown prompted Keady to launch Team Sweat, a nonprofit dedicated to persuading Nike to change its business practices.

Keady said that major sports events such as the World Cup offer an opportunity to reach a wider audience.

"Right now, the eyes of the world are on the World Cup," he said. "Now is the time to get out my message."

Nike and its contractors employ 800,000 workers in 1,000 factories across 52 countries. Indonesia is the firm's third-largest manufacturing site after China and Vietnam, Keady said.

A company spokesman said issues such as salary for workers in its disparate production chain are best dealt with "by negotiations between workers, labor representatives, the employer and the government."

Erin Dobson, Nike's senior manager for global public affairs, said the company has participated in efforts to improve overall worker welfare. "We believe there is ample room for innovation in this area," she said, "and that progress must occur throughout the industry, and at the governmental level, not only in Nike's supply chain."

She said Nike's code of conduct mandates that the company pay the minimum legal wage in each country, which in Indonesia is $122 a month, one of Asia's lowest.

Keady says that if Nike raised the price of its shoes by $2.50 a pair and gave that money to workers, it would help lift most out of poverty. Nike calls that a simplistic solution that does not take into account complicated country factors.

In 2000, the towering, redheaded Keady moved to Indonesia and lived on the same salary as a Nike worker, which at the time was about $1.25 a day, staying in a 9-by-9-foot home in a community where 10 families share bathroom and kitchen facilities.

He lost 25 pounds in one month and returned to the U.S. to tell of his experiences. "I thought it would be a 10-week tour, but I've been on the road ever since," he said.

Often, his campaign resembles activist Michael Moore's documentary "Roger & Me" and Keady has recorded his exploits, producing a short film called "Behind the Swoosh." He also unsuccessfully tried to meet with Phil Knight, Nike chairman and former chief executive, and has sought the support of athletes promoting Nike, including Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and soccer star Mia Hamm.

But he spends most of his time interviewing workers who don't make enough money in a week to buy a Nike jersey. Although he hasn't had time to watch the World Cup games, many of the workers have.

"Despite their low wages, they still have immense pride in their work," he said. "They're overjoyed at the fact that many of these World cup players are wearing jerseys made in Indonesia."

Keady told the story of one Nike factory worker.

"He said that one day, he'd like to be able to buy a pair of Nike sneakers that he helps make," the activist recalled. "After 19 years of factory work, he wanted to be able to bring home the product so he could show his daughter what Daddy does. That just floored me."

john.glionna@latimes.com

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