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Reebok Owns up to Workplace Safety Violations

Air Date: Week of

A recent audit of two Reebok manufacturing plants in Indonesia uncovered hazardous conditions for workers, and Reebok itself took the initiative to release the report. Steve Curwood speaks with Sharon Cohen, Reebok's V.P. of Public Affairs, about the company’s new code of conduct which prompted the report.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you worked for Reebok at two of its footwear factories in Indonesia in recent years, you risk the health consequences of inadequate ventilation, exposure to hazardous substances, and increased chances of suffering from rashes, headaches, and nausea. In addition, according to a recent audit, workers didn't know safety precautions for some of the chemicals they were handling. And waste was burned without being treated or the emissions cleaned. The complaints may not surprise you, following similar stories of worker abuse leveled against footwear maker Nike. What's a bit unusual is that the Reebok report was released not by some group trying to raise awareness about substandard working conditions, but by Reebok itself. Sharon Cohen, vice president of public affairs for Reebok, says it's the result of a new code of conduct adopted by the company.

COHEN: We went in to dig deep and find things, and I think that although there are certainly many, many things that need to be improved have been improved since the report, it's very exciting and very hopeful. Because I think this is an instance where instead of just seeing sensationalism, you see: Here are things that aren't the way they should be. Here's what happened to date, or as we noted in May of 1999 in the independent assessment. And we're going to continue. And I think the other exciting thing is, all the things that are noted that are quite systemic, that the independent research company says this is common in Indonesia. This is common in Indonesia; so what that says to other factories in our industries and in other industries is, learn from this. You know, these are things that you can do as well.

CURWOOD: How do you get changes, then, and how do you enforce changes, if this is the standard operating procedure in a country?

COHEN: Well, I think the way you need to understand about enforcing changes, is that good workplace conditions are good for your product. They're good for your brand. They're good for maintaining a stable workforce. I mean, I think this is not just human rights talk. I think this is basic good business. And let me also say that the factory owners are very engaged in this. We're very engaged in it. And the exciting thing in the report is that the workers are engaged in it. The workers have been testing chairs to see what's ergonomically comfortable. They've been testing the gloves. They've been -- and this is one of the exciting things -- there are more worker interviews, more in-depth worker interviews. So you really have all the key stakeholders. The factory owners and senior management, the workers, and the multinational company, very engaged, as well as the non-government organizations.

CURWOOD: How much did this study of this Indonesian factory cost?

COHEN: The study itself, if you're just looking at dollars and cents, was $35,000. But obviously, the person hours are also an additional expense. And the factories themselves, to date, have spent about a half a million dollars on actual factory improvements.

CURWOOD: So, to review each factory, you would spend, this way, you might spend $35,000, $50,000, $100,000. Can you afford to do that?

COHEN: I think that so many of the things that we found out are broadly applied. So for example, one of the things we did when we were in the middle of the study, when we had some of the initial results, is we sent a summary to all of our other factory owners and senior managers to begin working on it. And a couple of weeks ago, at a formal presentation of all of them, we presented the findings, so that we could, you know, bring it about in many, many more places. Because certainly, if you look at the study, you can see that so many of the issues are indeed very broad.

CURWOOD: Reebok embarrassed by any of this?

COHEN: I think when you take a risk like this of exposing yourself, there's always the risk of being -- you're the first to do it. It's always uncharted territory. And so, I think it does feel a little risky at times.

CURWOOD: I have to ask you this. Nike's been in a lot of trouble around human rights. Now, if I were cynical, I might say, Hey, Reebok is grabbing this as a marketing device, that you can show yourselves to be thinking about values that perhaps your biggest competitor isn't, and thereby grab some market share. True, or not true?

COHEN: Competition is not in human rights or labor practices. Competition is in advertising, and it's in product design. It's in marketing. But never for workers. And if there is anything that we could do to share with anybody else something that could make things better for their workers, we would like to do that. And we'd like this not to be something that would be the exception and be a stand-alone or a standout. And that's always been our position. And if Phil Knight called me, I'll tell you what I think you can do if you want. And this is not competitive.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

COHEN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Sharon Cohen is vice president of public affairs for the Reebok Corporation.



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