Anti-sweatshop activist Jeffrey Ballinger says that corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs such as codes of conduct for contractors are undermining worker rights.
Ten years ago, Ballinger and his group Press for Change led the charge against Nike’s mistreatment of workers in southeast Asia.
The anti-sweatshop movement had Nike and the shoe industry on the run.
Ballinger said that by co-opting public interest groups and with deft application of CSR, Nike and multinational sporting goods companies won the public relations battle.
Ballinger says that by spending on CSR, Nike and the other large retailers are able to appear socially responsible, instead of actually being socially responsible.
“The CSR cost for Nike is about $10 million to $12 million a year, just for the CSR staff and expenses, to go to these sustainability meetings all over the world,” Ballinger told CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER. “They have two or three Nike people at every meeting. That’s part of the CSR game.”
“I figure 75 cents per pair of shoes to the worker would fix the problem,” Ballinger said. “If Nike instead paid workers 75 cents more per pair of shoes, do you know what that would cost Nike compared to the CSR cost? That would cost them $210 million a year.”
Ballinger says that industry critics like Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange played into the hands of Nike and helped deflate the anti-sweatshop movement.
“We would have a conference call every three or four weeks,” Ballinger said. “And at one of these, in about 1997 or so, Medea Benjamin from Global Exchange let it slip that she was talking to Nike. I said what do you mean you are talking to Nike? We have workers fired in Indonesia. You don’t talk to a company until first they have agreed to get that contractor to rehire these 30 workers at one factory and 18 factories at another factory. The military would give a list to the factory manager telling him who the troublemakers are. And I said to Medea you just don’t go and talk to Nike. But she was unmoved. And it was after she talked to Nike, that other activists started talking to Nike. But Medea opened the door. She was the point person in the United States, getting all of the attention. And she sent the signal if I can talk to Nike, you can talk with Nike too.”
Ballinger says that activists won round one ten years ago against Nike and the other apparel makers. They have lost round two, with companies winning the public relations battle, getting Americas to believe, through CSR that they are doing the right thing.
“Round three would be exposing the fraud of CSR,” Ballinger said. “And getting back into another kind of game where we are saying we don’t want self-regulation. We want to know what the governments are doing and why are these companies are in the most lawless places on earth? We want you to document that and put it on your web site.”
Ballinger said he was often vilified by other activists for taking a strong stance against sweatshops.
“I cannot tell you how often I have heard don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Ballinger said. “The perfect invariably meant worker empowerment, the good was usually a corporate self-regulation scheme. What is wrong with being uncompromising? I thought that it was good to be uncompromising. Certainly, businesses say that they are uncompromising when it comes to quality. Activists should be able to say we won’t compromise on a living wage or collective bargaining, where a union has won majority support among workers, shouldn’t they?”
“I recall being accused of trying to split the movement because I objected to anti-sweat groups touting a new vague and unenforceable initiative that big brands like Reebok were only too happy to sign on to. Much favorable publicity for the corporations followed, of course. Naysayers were marginalized as extremists,” Ballinger said.
[For a complete transcript of the Interview with Jeffrey Ballinger, see 21 CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER 22, May 28, 2007, print edition only.]
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