It sometimes seems that at such a great research university as ours, the great thinkers we have here forget the importance of field research--that is, getting information from the people who are \being studied"" themselves. I do not intend to de-emphasize the subjective nature of such research. I only mean to suggest that there is inherent value in investigation that goes to the source itself.
Josefina Fernandez is 23 years old and a single mother of three children. In an interview three other students and I conducted in December 2000, we learned from Josefina what it is like to work in a garment factory that produces Nike apparel.
At the time of the interview, Josefina told us that the workers at the Kukdong Corporation of Korea's Mexico plant were demanding wage increases, but were only talking about it quietly because they were afraid of being fired.
The company announced its $17 million investment in Atlixco in March 1999. The factory opened in November. It employs 860 workers in its main shop. They produce sweatshirts and sweatpants for the Universities of North Carolina, Maryland, Michigan, Arizona, Penn State, Georgetown, Michigan State and Oregon. Most of the workers come from nearly 50 small towns scattered around the southwest of the state of Puebla. For some, it takes two hours just to get to work.
In the first week of January, I learned through direct sources among the workers in Mexico that 25 workers were given the option of either signing a ""voluntary"" resignation statement and receiving a severance payment, or suffering dismissal without payment--20 workers chose to sign the statement and five refused. The cause of these firings was in December, when we had met with Josefina in Mexico.
At the time of the December interview, workers had been complaining about the rotten and maggot-ridden food in the company cafeteria, where the workers have to eat. They are not allowed to bring food with them. They complained to the company union representative from a union established by Kukdong to prevent independent union activity. The company union representative told them: ""Why don't you organize your people to protest?"" They did, and a boycott of the cafeteria was begun. After the company union representative's sarcastic comments, these workers decided it might serve their interests to organize an independent union.
When the workers returned from Christmas break, the company had identified the 25 aforementioned workers as ""troublemakers"" and gave them the ""leave or be fired"" option. Upon learning this Jan. 12, all 860 workers went on strike, seizing control of the plant gates for more than a day. Then, Jan. 14, the state police, led by the company union representative, entered the factory and assaulted the 600 workers who were still at the plant--15 of the 600 were taken to the hospital. Most of these workers are women.
Since then, the company has agreed to let all the workers return to work (minus the 25 who were originally fired), and then turned around and arbitrarily decided not to let workers into the factory who are suspected of participating in the strike. Nike, and its code of conduct enforcer the Fair Labor Association, have neglected to come clean about the illegal firings, the forced overtime, the rotten food and most importantly, the police brutality--all of which violate Nike's code of conduct. Both Nike and FLA have made misleading public statements about the situation in an attempt to curb all of the negative attention.
Fortunately, UW-Madison is not a member of FLA. UW-Madison is a member of the Worker Rights Consortium, which is waiting to make a statement on the situation pending an investigation that took place at Kukdong over the weekend. Thankfully, UW-Madison is not implicated in the cover-up attempts taken by Nike or its organization, the FLA, and can participate in independent verification.
At a press conference held outside UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley's office on Jan. 17, I was one of the people who asked Wiley to send a statement to Kukdong managers and the elected officials in Mexico responsible for the violence inflicted on these young women. We simply asked him to make a statement to show he supports the values of basic human rights and of the University of Wisconsin Code of Conduct according to the situation at Kukdong. We wanted him to let Nike know that it should recognize the freedom of association (like the Chancellor of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill just did).
Instead, the chancellor opted to address the student population through an editorial stating ""the university will not become a global police force for episodes of labor controversy that can and do develop on a daily basis throughout the world."" This statement, while quite rational, is an act of cowardice on Chancellor Wiley's part. I ask, why not, as a university ""at the forefront of collegiate efforts to curb sweatshop abuses"" condemn the police violence against young, poor women, most between the ages of 15-17, who are clearly in a situation where they are out-moneyed, out-smarted and out-gunned by one of the richest corporations and most corrupt governments in the world? Why not stand on the side of empathy, dignity and courage, like I did with three other students when we sat at a table with a Kukdong worker and asked her what it was like to work in this factory?
Clearly, this is the first case where Wiley, as our new chancellor, has been asked to do such a thing. What does he have to feel so defensive about?