Right till the end of January, Dita Sari was preparing to fly from her home near Jakarta to Salt Lake City to bask today in the admiration of assorted do-gooders and celebrities mustered by Reebok. The occasion is the 13th annual Human Rights Awards, overseen by a board that includes Jimmy Carter and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo.
Make no mistake, the folks who get these awards all have been fine organizers and activists, committed to working for minorities, the disenfranchised, the disabled, the underdogs in our wicked world.
But Dita Sari’s plan was to accept the airplane ticket from Reebok, go to Salt Lake City where the world’s winter athletes are now assembled and then, when offered the human rights award, reject it. Now, this annual ceremony isn’t up there with the Nobels or the MacArthur grants. Despite the company’s best efforts, it’s definitely a second-tier event. Nonetheless, it has paid off for Reebok. Says Jeff Ballinger, a anti-sweatshop activist who has organized with shoe workers in Indonesia the past 13 years, “With this kind of ceremony, Reebok gets its name into respectable company. When they give a prize to someone like Julie Su, a lawyer for immigrant workers in California, people who wouldn’t be seen dead in Nikes are impressed.”
Dita Sari was picked by Reebok’s judges because she defied her government on the issue of independent trade unions. In her own words: “In 1995, I was arrested and tortured by the police, after leading a strike of 5,000 workers…. They demanded an increase of their wages [they were paid only $1 for working eight hours a day]…. This company operated in West Java, and produced shoes for Reebok and Adidas.” She got out of prison in 1999. Since then, she has been building a union of workers in plants across Java.
Reebok’s flacks can brandish armloads of studies, codes, monitoring reports, guidelines and kindred matter attesting to the company’s dedication to the fair treatment of anyone making consumer items with the name Reebok printed on them. But nothing has really changed.
“We’ve created a cottage industry of monitors and inspectors and drafters of codes,” Ballinger says, “but all these workers ever wanted was to sit down in dignity and negotiate with their bosses, and this has never happened.”
Due in large part to the efforts of the workers and Western allies such as Ballinger’s Press for Change, the daily wage in Indonesia rose more than 300% between 1990 and 1997, at which point the Asian economic crisis struck. Inflation wiped out those gains. Workers’ daily pay is now half what it was before the crisis hit.
These were the points Dita Sari was going to make when she got to Salt Lake City. Then she learned that Reebok intended to schedule her and other recipients for public events before the awards ceremony. Rather than let the company benefit in any way from her presence, Dita Sari pulled the plug and, at last word, is in Jakarta raising money for workers left destitute by the worst flooding in decades. She has sent the speech she was planning to give in Salt Lake City:
“I have taken this award into a very deep consideration. We finally decide not to accept this…. In Indonesia, there are five Reebok companies; 80% of the workers are women. All companies are subcontracted, often by South Korean companies…. Since the workers can only get around $1.50 a day, they then have to live in a slum area, surrounded by poor and unhealthy conditions, especially for their children. At the same time, Reebok collected millions of dollars of profit every year, directly contributed by these workers. The low pay and exploitation of the workers of Indonesia, Mexico and Vietnam are the main reasons why we will not accept this award.”
But with its awards, isn’t Reebok at least trying to do something decent? The way Dita Sari sees things, the attempt is a phony. All the awards in the world, all the window dressing with celebrities such as Desmond Tutu, Carly Simon, Sting and Robert Redford don’t alter the basic fact that workers in the Third World are being paid the minimum to make a very profitable product. According to Ballinger, the labor cost of a $70 pair of sneakers made in China, Vietnam or Indonesia is $1 or less.
Dita Sari sees the world a lot more clearly than the celebrities and activists massed at events such as the one organized by Reebok. Dita Sari turned down $50,000 from Reebok and will go on organizing against corporate exploitation and government harassment. Do-gooders should study her fine example and stiffen their spines.
Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications