The GoodWorks "Investigation"

For the past six months, former Atlanta Mayor, UN Ambassador and civil rights leader Andrew Young and his GoodWorks International consulting firm have been investigating Nike's overseas operations at the company's request. Young states in his final report, which was released at the end of June, that his mission was to conduct an "independent evaluation of [Nike's] Code Of Conduct and its application at the factory level and to make specific suggestions going forward as to how their Code Of Conduct could be more effectively applied and possibly enhanced."

The Nike-financed analysis was limited to peripheral issues, side-stepping the most serious concerns raised by human rights and labor activists. Young was not, for example, asked by Nike to examine wages and compensation, since "an understanding of national and local labor laws, variances in the costs of food, housing and transportation from region to region, the ability of local governments to enforce local and national laws, factory cooperation and so forth" would be "well beyond the technical capacity of our small firm."

Nike officials approach unlivable wages, worker abuse and labor law violations as a mere PR problem, and in Young they seem to have found a suitable PR solution. The GoodWorks report more or less let Nike off the hook, saying that the company was doing a good job... although they could "do better."

Most of the responsibility for the (unaddressed) problems was shifted away from the company and attributed to absentee owners, expatriate managers and cultural climates where the concept of workers' rights is "not a well-developed or well-understood principle." Yet the question of whether Nike actively sought out such labor climates was not addressed. Young's response was essentially to shrug his shoulders and say "what can we do," characterizing Nike's overseas factory presence as being limited to technical and "quality control" personnel. Apparently Nike's commitment to quality extends only to the quality of its products, and not to quality of life of the individuals producing those products. Although the factories in question are wholly owned and operated by Asian companies with Nike contracts, Young himself even notes that Nike has "enormous leverage" and "de facto control" over these facilities because they are dependent upon Nike business.

Young and GoodWorks visited four factories each in Vietnam, Indonesia and China. Young says plants chosen included the "best" and "worst" factories according to audit records, including some that had been involved in labor problems widely reported in the media. On average, the group spent a mere three to four hours in each factory, touring the facilities and interviewing randomly-selected workers and labor representatives. Investigators also examined external audit reports and met with international and in-country non-governmental organizations. But Young was accompanied at all times by Nike representatives and was assisted by a Nike translator.

Several groups have been openly critical of Young and his methods. Vietnam Labor Watch also toured Nike plants at the beginning of this year and released their report, "Nike Labor Practices in Vietnam," in March. The group spent 16 days in Nike's Sam Yang plant, and later conducted a surprise visit there and at the Pouchen, Dona Victor and Tae Kwan Vina facilities. The group also conducted in-depth interviews with 35 Vietnamese employees. Unlike Young, VLW set out to explore wages, working conditions, and health and safety practices. Also unlike Young, they went beyond the conclusion that "Nike has a fine Code of Conduct," and noted that "this Code of Conduct is being violated consistently by Nike contractors in Vietnam. While Nike claims it is trying to monitor and enforce its Code, its current approach to monitoring and enforcement is simply not working." In a draft response to Young's report, VLW's Thuyen Nguyen wrote, "Ambassador Young did not have the expertise, the local knowledge, the interest as well as the independence to conduct an investigation into Nike's overseas labor practices."

The GoodWorks report has also been criticized by Australian researcher Anita Chan, who wrote in a letter to the Washington Post that Young's conclusions were sharply at odds with her own, reached after three years of research on the Chinese footwear industry. Although Chan is listed in the GoodWorks appendix as one of the individuals and NGOs the group consulted for the study, Chan says Young never contacted her. (Nguyen similarly reports that two other individuals listed in the report's appendix, Jacques Bertrand of Development and Peace and Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, also said they had no conversations with Young about Nike labor practices.)

Bob Herbert, in a New York Times op-ed piece critical of the report, writes that "the kindest thing that can be said at this point is that Mr. Young was naive," and faults the Ambassador for deliberately ignoring the most egregious abuses in the factories and dodging or misrepresenting the real issues. Similarly, Michael Hinkelman of the Atlanta Business Chronicle charges that Young was either duped, or he sold out. "Young should know better," Hinkelman writes. "He allowed himself to be used as a pawn by Nike to whitewash its exploitation of Asian workers. Now, they are using his name to put a seal of approval on their shameful record of exploitation.

Hinkelman concludes: "People of Young's stature and background have a higher obligation than simply to be rubber stamps for U.S. corporations. There once was a time when Young -- an ordained minister -- saw his mission in another light. Now, we find he has jumped in bed with the exploiters. And for what? A few pieces of silver?"