Today I write from a dark place. I have wept many times since starting this project, but today I feel an anger so deep that I want to scream and hit shit. The thread that I have pulled from the clothing of the dead has unraveled into one gigantic tangled mess of human degradation, sickness and death. There are is end to the stories of unimaginable suffering in the world caused by our lust for low prices and high fashion. Today I decided to investigate a recent protest in Cambodia at a factory that manufactures clothing for Nike. This Monday, approximately 3000 Cambodian factory workers, mostly woman, blocked a road outside their factory in Kampong Speu Province. They are asking for $14 monthly pay increase. The current minimum wage is $74 per month. Police moved on their protest with stun batons and injured 23 workers, including a pregnant women who lost her baby due to her injuries.
Nike lives 11 miles from my home in Portland, Oregon. They employ about 8000 people in their 213 acre campus. Nike is Oregons' largest public company. In 2012 they paid around $8 million in property taxes to Washington County. Due to the lack of corporate tax disclosure, it is not publicly known just exactly how much tax revenue the State of Oregon earns from Nike annually. In December of 2012 Gov. John Kitzhaber approved an agreement to lock Nike's income tax calculation for between five and forty years in order to convince them to stay and expand in Oregon rather then move to Texas or Washington. This deal was rushed through the legislature during a special session called by the Governor. House bill 4200 passed 50-5 in the House and 22-6 in the Senate.
Most Oregonians would probably consider keeping Nike local to be a huge win for the state. From the personal accounts I have gathered most Nike employees in the Portland area count themselves incredibly lucky to work for this corporation. They offer good salaries and benefits to their executives and support staff. The facility has a museum-esque aesthetic and Nike staff also enjoy a private portion of the beautiful Oregon forest, owned exclusively by their employer. Unfortunately the expansion planned for their corporate headquarters will be on top of that forrest but hopefully there will still be some left over for the employees to enjoy.
However not everyone saw this deal as a victory for the state.
"Very likely the company’s tax bill today is puny, compared to what it once was. Nike was a prominent member of the Loophole Lobby that succeeded in getting the Oregon legislature to adopt “single-sales factor” — the formula for calculating the share of a multistate corporation’s nationwide profits that Oregon gets to tax. Today Oregon counts just the percent of nationwide sales that occur in Oregon, where before the state also factored in the share of the corporation’s property and payroll in Oregon when apportioning profits that Oregon can tax," says Chuck Sheketoff, the executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy.
The protest on Monday and its disturbing outcome led me down the rabbit hole that is Nike and Cambodia which could fill an entire book. I found this short documentary on youtube called "The Apparel Truth" which includes footage of sweatshops supplying Walmart, Nygard, H&M, Nike and GAP. In the course of their investigation the filmakers were able to get the following quote by one of the factory managers:
"Here basically people are very hardworking people, you tell anything, and they'll do it for you, they are raw people…you can mold them as much as you can. That is the best part of these guys…so you can use them however you can. Whatever we give, they are happy with that. They do not know exactly what they are worth. You have plenty of people over here, the labor is very cheap."
This is the entire text of the signs being held up in the video, which is a direct plea for help to American shoppers to put pressure on Walmart and H&M to pay them back wages and benefits.
"In Cambodia garment workers at a factory supplying Walmart were left unpaid and homeless. After shutdowns in September 2012, bosses abandoned the Kingsland factory. Garment workers lost their jobs and were denied back wages and benefits. Factory workers hope consumers hear their voices. Please Walmart and H&M force factory boss to the solve the problem.
Workers tell their story:
"In Camobdia, we are 400 workers making underwear Walmart and H&M."
"Owners closed the Kingsland Garment factory, suspended our work and did not pay severance and back wages."
"Owners have fled the country."
"Management actions are not legal. We demand factory owners obey the law and pay us. We worry bosses will remove machinery at night still without paying us."
"We are sleeping on the sidewalk outside factory gates. We are scared at night."
"I am owed $800 in back wages and benefits."
"I am owed $1600 in back wages and benefits."
"I am owed $250 in back wages and benefits."
"We want our wages and benefits."
"We ask that factory owners obey labour laws."
"We have no money for food. We are hungry."
"We think Walmart, H&M should be accountable."
"Cheap clothes from Walmart, H&M have a human cost. Please help us."
As I typed these words I could not help thinking about the quote above where the manager said the garment workers "do not know exactly what they are worth". If the quotes from their signs above prove anything, it is that they know excatly what they are worth. Each person holds up their own sign with their amount due written into the space provided. I received the following comment when I reposted this video on FaceBook:
"These folks must be fairly desperate to be working in sweat shops. If those sweat shops are shut down, how will these folks make any money? In other words, is a crappy job better than no job? I would argue yes. Of course a good job is the ideal, but a developing country has to crawl before it can walk."
To which I replied that human decency should not be something that needs "development" when the money is coming from the West.
I am planning to visit Nike in person next week to follow up with them regarding the protest in Kampong Speu. The associated press article about the incident did not include even a mention of the woman who lost her baby. I want to be sure that Nike is aware of the blood on their hands. I am going to ask them what they plan to do about it. It is my sincere hope that they will take me seriously. Honestly I am terrified to walk into their compound. Who knows if I will even get passed the front desk. But somewhere, deep inside of me, I hear the familiar mantra.....
"Just Do It"