Reebok kicked in the pants

glparramatta glparramatta at
Mon Feb 11 20:51:46 MST 2002

Reebok kicked in the pants by Indonesian labour activist

Dita Sari, Indonesian labour leader, was recently featured in the Los
Angeles Times for turning down the lucrative "Reebok Human Rights

Dita will be in Sydney, March 28-April 1 for the 2nd Asia Pacific
International Solidarity Conference.

ph: +61 2 9690 1230

email: apisc2002 at

Published in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, February 7, 2002

Running From Reebok's Hypocrisy

By Alexander Cockburn

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 eebok. 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 re
ports, 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

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.

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

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