Look out Timberland.
Nike foe Jeffrey Ballinger has the New Hampshire-based maker of outdoor wear – primarily boots – in his sights.
Ballinger has cult hero status in the labor movement.
His big deal?
Exposing mistreatment of Nike contract workers in Indonesia in the mid-1990s.
And kicking off the global anti-sweatshop movement.
Ballinger had Nike on the run.
Hundreds of articles appeared in newspapers around the world.
And if it wasn’t the headline – it was the underlying story – Nike mistreats its workers.
In 1998 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Nike CEO Phil Knight admitted that “the Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse.”
(Ballinger was tossed from the Press Club that day after he began passing out his own press release to the gathered media.)
University students were activated and started harassing school bookstore managers asking – are the university sweatshirts made in sweatshops?
The corporate social responsibility movement was created to derail the anti-sweatshop movement.
And it did – with an assist from the Clinton Apparel Industry Partnership and groups like Global Exchange – which was meeting with Nike right when Ballinger and his group Press for Change had Nike on run.
In recent years, Ballinger has been writing a PhD dissertation on workers rights in Southeast Asia.
But now, he’s back in it.
His new target?
What drew Timberland to Ballinger’s attention?
Timberland’s over-the-top corporate social responsibility rhetoric.
So Ballinger went to the company’s Earthkeeper web site where Timberland asks for feedback from the public on how to best improve the lot of Timberland workers in third world countries.
Ballinger began posting questions.
And wasn’t getting straight answers.
“They have been one of the more aggressively companies – rhetorically – on corporate social responsibility,” Ballinger told CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER last week.
“Jeffrey Swartz is the CEO. He says he wants to ‘seduce consumers to care,’” Ballinger said.
“He says – “I don’t want my CSR reports to be mere corporate cologne’ – which he knows it is. It’s just corporate cologne.”
“He says – look at us – we are the best. So, I just started plunking things down on their web page. They issued this challenge. And I can’t get a straight answer.”
Ballinger wants to debate Timberland on the issue of how they treat the workers who make their boots.
But Timberland refuses to engage in a debate with Ballinger.
“A public debate to sell newspapers does not interest us,” says Timberland’s Robin Giampa. “The hard work of real engagement – that interests us. We’ve said that to Mr. Ballinger. We restate simply, our invitation to him, and to any other advocate with a point of view that we can learn from – sit with us, push us, educate us.”
That’s what Ballinger calls “corporate cologne.”
Ballinger says that instead of spewing corporate cologne, Timberland could make a real difference in the lives of the workers who build the company’s boots and outdoor wear.
“If they have 18 supplier factories in Thailand, they should demand that all of those supplier factories write to the Thai government and ask – how many labor inspectors do you have, how many factories did they visit, how many violations were found, how many prosecutions were started, how many back pay awards were paid?”
“Because no local journalist in Thailand can get this information. No local legal aid group in Thailand can get this information. But if you had 18 suppliers for Timberland writing to the government, you better believe that they would be getting some numbers.”
“We have to turn this whole thing around from self-regulation – and that is what CSR is,” Ballinger says. “It’s a self-regulation scheme. We have to turn this back into government regulation. And the only way you can do this is to pressure the government. I can show you stuff from Indonesia.”
“After we agitated on the minimum wage and minimum wage enforcement, you had newspaper stories saying – bosses are going to jail. And this was under Suharto when the press was tightly controlled. So, I know this can work. I know if you give local groups and local journalists this information about how workers are not being protected, that things can change.”
Timberland responds by saying that while “the lack of effective implementation and enforcement of national labor laws widely exists” – the underlying cause is “lack of resources.”
Not true says Ballinger. “It’s political will that’s lacking – pure and simple,” Ballinger says.
Ballinger says that while Thailand may have a sufficient number of inspectors – “they are just going around collecting bribes for not enforcing the law.”
Timberland says that a letter writing campaign by Timberland will not make things “miraculously happen.”
“Who says it will be a miracle?” Ballinger shoots back. “It won’t happen overnight.”
But as he showed with Nike in Indonesia, it will happen quickly.
On the Earthkeepers web site, a person writing under the name “Truth Teller,” slammed Ballinger.
“He is as disrespected within the human rights/labor rights advocacy community as he is with the community of responsible companies seeking to improve conditions for workers,” Truth Teller wrote.
This did not sit well with labor activists – who weighed in on Ballinger’s behalf from around the world.
Benjamin Fasching Gray wrote: “Ballinger was one of the first, if not the first, to draw attention to footwear industry sweatshops in South East Asia and his work helped start the Students Against Sweatshops movement, without which this website wouldn’t exist. Still more tangibly, his research in Indonesia was an important factor in the movement that helped raise the minimum wage in that country. To argue that he is not respected in this or that community is worse than ludicrous – it is a form of mobbing.”
And Dave Marsh asked: “Will I be forgiven for my suspicion that Truth Teller is meant to be understood for saying what Timberland dare not – or am I meant to act stupid in the name of politesse?”
CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER is published in Washington, D.C.