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Thursday March 8, 2001

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Discussion brings reality of Mexican labor conditions to UA

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By Katie Clark

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Nike, SAS reps and others say the meeting was productive

Representatives from Nike, Students Against Sweatshops, and various fair labor organizations agreed that yesterday's panel discussion about unfair labor conditions at a Mexican factory went well.

"It was very productive," said Rachel Wilson, a psychology graduate student and SAS member who was at the UA-sponsored event. "It was an excellent opportunity for the UA community to see how our relationship with multi-national corporations has a direct impact on people's lives."

"I am very, very pleased," agreed UA President Peter Likins, who monitored the discussion. "By all accounts, they had a very positive experience interacting with each other."

Amanda Tucker, senior manager for corporate responsibility for Nike, said she was enthusiastic about the opportunity for everybody to come face to face.

"I just want to congratulate UA for bringing us together on a panel," she said. "This reaffirms a common interest that we all share."

That interest, agreed all six of the panelists, is to take action on unfair working conditions in the Korean-owned Kukdong factory in Pueblo, Mexico. The factory manufactures hooded fleece sweatshirts for UA and other schools.

"There are some special challenges that this situation creates," Tucker said.

This is the first time representatives from every side of the issue have come together to discuss the situation at Kukdong.

Tensions in the factory were heightened on Jan. 3 when five workers were fired for protesting the food in the cafeteria. On Jan. 10, approximately 800 of the factory's workers went on strike in opposition to what they believed to be unfair termination.

Bama Athreya, deputy director for the International Labor Rights Fund, said most of the workers have been allowed to return to work, but the factory is still not doing its job in enforcing Nike's code of conduct, which calls for fair treatment of all factory workers.

"There's still a long way to go to establish freedom of association in this factory," said Athreya.

Evelyn Zepeda, a representative from United Students Against Sweatshops, summarized her first-hand accounts of the working conditions at the factory after going there in January.

Zepeda arrived on the morning workers were allowed to go back to work and said signs of abuse and intimidation were obvious.

"I saw swollen eyes, swollen arms, swollen faces," she said. "I saw people holding each other and sobbing."

Zepeda said the "interesting relationship" between the government, the union now in place for the workers, and the security guards at the factory account for the abuse and unfair conditions.

She mentioned that after interviewing the workers, many of them claimed the union encouraged them to strike, but then denied having any part of the strike when it began.

Daniel Long, a representative from the Workers' Rights Consortium, also discussed conditions at the factory and introduced three ideas that he said he believes will alleviate future problems.

Long said that Nike and UA must be timely when dealing with problems that occur like those in Kukdong, they must be open to solutions and they must accept worker empowerment. He also said an observer should be present to monitor conditions.

"It's in our best interest to help them get through it," Tucker said, adding that Nike has sent letters to the Mexican government asking it to put Kukdong at the top of its list of priorities

She also said the amount of influence Nike has with the government about the factory is diminishing.

Tucker also emphasized that simply not doing business with the factory would only make the situation worse, since workers already fear they will lose their jobs because of a current lack of production because of an overstock of inventory.

Gerald Morales, a Phoenix lawyer and UA adjunct law professor, said, though, that actions made by Nike and UA will not happen right away. The rest of the panel echoed his words.

"We have to take steps one at a time," Morales said.

Likins and Wilson both agreed they hope a future meeting will take place on the UA campus.



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