Thursday, February 26, 2009

Secret American Empire - Ch.6


In 2003 I was contacted by two filmmakers, Jim Keady and Leslie Kretzu. They requested an on-camera interview with me. Talking over the phone and through e-mails with them. I concluded that they were the antithesis of EHMs and represented a new wave of activists.

In addition to interviewing you, we want you to know about Indonesia's sweatshops,” Leslie told me when we finally got together. She briefly explained that in 2000 they had lived with Nike factory workers in Indonesia, “under the same terrible conditions, surviving on the same wages – or at least trying to.”

I asked what had motivated them to do it.

It seems so long ago,” Leslie said. “I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. They warned me that I'd never be the same. Their motto is 'JVC: Ruined for life.' I saw things I couldn't believe: poverty and suffering. I guess I was ruined for life. Then I worked with Mother Teresa's folks in India. I wanted to help her 'poorest of the poor.' Once you've lived with people like that you can never be the same, never return to your old ways, never forget. You simply have to do something.”

I looked at Jim.

I was kidnapped by God,” he said, laughing. “Sounds funny, but I'm absolutely serious. When I was in high school I thought I would go to Wall Street, make millions, and retire by thirty-five. Then I took a trip around the world in 1993. I was twenty-one. I visited developing countries for the first time: Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Burma, Nepal, to name a few. I saw real poverty. It contextualized the sixteen years of Catholic school teachings I had received, including a B.S. from Saint Joseph's University. I now understood who Jesus was fighting for. It was the beginning of my commitment to fight for the same things. Not just Jesus, of course, but also the Prophet Mohammad, the prophets in the Jewish tradition, the Buddha, and every other revered spiritual figure. In fact all of the worl's major religions have social justice at their core.”

I asked them to summarize their story in writing.

We started paying attention to Nike's labor practices back in 1998 when Jim was an assistant soccer coach at St. John's University in New York City. He was studying for a Masters degree in Theology while coaching, and decided for a paper topic to examine Nike's labor practices in light of Catholic Social Teaching. As he started his research, the Athletic Department at St. John's University began to negotiate a $3.5 million dollar endorsement deal with Nike that would require all coaches and athletes to wear and promote Nike products. He first said privately, then publicly, that as a matter of conscience, he did not want to be a walking advertisement for a company with alleged sweatshop labor practices. At one of the largest Catholic universities in the county he was given an ultimatum: Wear Nike and stop questioning the deal, or resign. In June 1998, he was forced to resign.

Jim wanted to be 100 percent sure of his position, so he asked Nike if he could work in one of their factories for a month to get a sense of the conditions. Nike said that one month wouldn't be long enough, that he didn't speak any Southeast Asian languages, and that he would displace a worker. Jim wrote back that if one month want' enough, he'd go for six months or a year – however long it would take to get a sense of the working conditions and determine whether or not these were sweatshop jobs. He pointed out that since he spoke Spanish, Nike could send him to a factory in Central America. And for the worker he displaced, Jim found a nonprofit in Oregon (where Nike headquarters are based) that agreed to fly the worker to the US and give him or her a room, board, and living stipend, essentially a vacation for the duration of the time Jim took over the job. Nike wrote back saying they weren't interested in his offer.

Because Jim could not work in a Nike factory, we decided to do the only thing we could think of as an alternative: to live with workers in their village and economically restrict ourselves to the wages that they are paid. So in 2000, we went to Tangerang, Indonesia, outside Jakarta, to live with Nike factory workers on their basic wage - $1.25/day.

In one month, Leslie lost 15 pounds and Jim lost 25 pounds. Like Nike's workers, we lived in a small 9x9 cement box, with no furniture and no air conditioning – in this steaming tropical city. We slept on thin mats on an uneven cement floor covered in shelf paper, which had a constant layer of ash and grit from the burning garbage, factory pollution, and car exhaust fumes. The toilets drained into open sewers on both sides of the street. Because of the sewers, the village was infested with fist-sized cockroaches and the biggest rats we'd ever seen.

Some people say to us, “You can live like a king on $1.25 a day in a place like Indonesia.” It's a statement filled with apathy and misinformation. Most who make such claims have never even been to Indonesia. For $1.25 we were able to buy 2 small meals of rice and vegetables and a couple bananas. If we wanted soap or toothpaste, we had to eat less food. One day Jim knocked over the kerosene for our small portable stove while cleaning, and we had to use our laundry soap to clean up the mess. It was a disaster – devastating financially, and therefore emotionally as well.

Try on these shoes. You are a 20-something adult working 8am to 8pm, Monday through Saturday and sometimes Sunday. That doesn't include travel time or preparing yourself for work. You don't have the money to celebrate a friend's birthday. You can't afford a radio or even think about a television. You haven't bought yourself something new to wear in over 2 years. When you get home at the end of the day, you have to spend 30-45 minutes doing your laundry by hand. You don't have many clothes, and whatever you wear is visibly dirty at the end of the day. I you're a woman, when you menstruate you still get only the alloted two bathroom breaks per day allowed to everyone; so you have to tie a scarf around your waist or wear a long shirt to cover the blood stains on your pants.

You're exhausted. You can feel the tired in your bones. You're afraid that if you speak up, you'll lose your job. And the multinational company you work for is telling the world that they've made serious changes and consumers need not worry. You're 100 percent happy.

Unfortunately, it wasn't just Nike workers who lived in these conditions and on these wages. We spoke to people producing for Adidas, Reebok, The Gap, Old Navy, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo/Ralph Lauren, Lotto, Fila, and Levi's. All earned the same poverty wages, lived in the same type of slums, and had the same requests of their corporate buyers: give us higher wages and the freedom to organize independent unions.

Nike workers were living degraded, unhealthy lives – ones most people from the United States cannot imagine. But wealthy Indonesians, along with foreigners, enjoyed the good life. When I was an EHM, there was one hotel in Jakarta that was the place where people like me stayed: the Intercontinental Indonesia. Today, the vast selection includes a Four Seasons, Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Crowne Plaza, Sheraton, Mandarin, Le Meridien, Millennium, Ritz-Carlton, and a number of others. These are the homes-away-from-home for US corporate executives, where they wine and dine their Indonesian underlings and clients. From their rooms, high above the city, they can look out toward Tangerang and the other “suburbs” where the city's workers live. They may try to deny culpability by pointing out that their companies do not own the factories, but they must feel the terrible guilt that comes from the deeper understanding that they are responsible.

Nike squeezes the factory owners mercilessly,” Jim said. “Nike's people know the cost of producing every shoelace and sole – to the penny. They push and push, forcing the owners to keep the costs at a bare minimum. In the end, the factory owner – often Chinese – is compelled to accept a very small profit.”

The owners are a lot better off than the workers,” Leslie said, sighing. “But they too are exploited. Nike calls the shots. And pockets the dough.”

We zero in on Nike,” Jim explained, “because it's the industry leader – it has a much greater market share than all its competitors. It sets the pace. If we can force Nike to do better, everyone else will follow.”

Another aspect of “progress” in Indonesia is experienced by the corporate executives every time they step out of one of their luxury hotels. The becaks are gone. Those bicycle cabs festooned with fanciful murals were banned from Jakarta's main streets in 1994. President Suharto claimed they symbolized a backward country. Unfortunately, his decision relegated tens of thousands of drivers to the ranks of the unemployed. The visitor will instead be assaulted by Bajajs, small motorized three-wheeled scooter “taxis” enclosed in orange metal shells. Developed originally for India by Vespa, the Bajaj, according to Suharto, represented modernization. It is noisy, polluting, hot, and dangerous. Unlike the becaks, Bajajs are all identical, the brilliant rainbow-colored paintings replaced by ubiquitous orange. An estimated twenty-thousand now clog the capital's streets. Most becak drivers never received the training necessary to operate a Bajaj; many also work in sweatshops.

One US administration after another supported Suharto's dictatorship. However, the Jakarta government came under harsh critism from NGOs. Watchdog organizations condemned its serious violations of international and local laws, its human rights abuses, and its willingness to sacrifice democratic principles in order to satisfy multinational corporations and members of the president's inner circle. The New York Times reported that “Indonesia regularly ranks among the world's most corrupt countries in international surveys.”

I can't believe how bad thigns got,” Neil, a former CIA operative, told me. He attended one of my book signings, lingered afterward, and offered to buy me a beer. We spent several hours talking into the night. We met again several months later when I visited my in-laws near San Francisco. He had joined the CIA because his Chinese parents raised him to hate Mao. “I was idealistic when I was stationed in Jakarta. It was '81, I believed we had to keep the Commies out of Indonesia.” He became disillusioned during the US invasion of Panama in 1989, feeling that it would turn people around the world against the United States. He retired from government work shortly afterward and went into “private practice.” Eventually, in 2005, he returned to Indonesia to head up a security team guarding tsunami reconstruction efforts against freedom fighters in Aceh province. “My God, this last trip was an eye-opener! Jakarta looks like a big modern city – sparkling skyscrapers, luxury hotels, but beneath the surface... things are worse than ever. Corruption's rampant. And we do the corrupting.”

When I asked why, after quitting the CIA, he continued in a similar profession, he answered, “It's all I know, a living.” Then, the second reason, like the first, I hear often from jackals. “Besides, there's no substitute for the high you get. Skydivers and motorcycle racers do it for the rush, but that's nothing compared to facing a man who wants to kill you.”

Statements like that send chills along my spine. I think about my dad and other World War II heroes. How would they feel to know that our corporations and government encourage men to become addicted to killing for killing's sake? In writing Confessions, I wrestled with the horrible guilt of what I had done. Now, I was discovering that the consequences were more tragic than ever I had imagined.

- pages 25-29, The Secret History of the American Empire, by John Perkins

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