Thursday, 2 July 2009

How bad news can do good

Carsten Terp blogs about fear and hope in secret meetings with workers in Vietnam following a feature by the Danish Consumer Council on how Nike turned a blind eye to abuses to factory workers:

'By telling the stories behind the products, consumer organisations can give oppressed workers in third world countries a voice of their own. And yes, we can change the world…

"You must expect this call to be traced by the authorities."

The loud music in the cafĂ© makes it hard to hear the voice on the phone. “You need to go out and buy a new telephone,” the voice says: “If you keep using this one they might track you down.”

We are in Vietnam to interview workers at factories producing shoes for the world’s biggest sportswear company, Nike. Vietnam is the new Thailand and China in one - a paradise for tourists and a cheap factory for Western companies. Yet the country is led by one of the world’s most repressive regimes. We want to know if basic human and workers rights are respected here. We know for a fact that press freedom isn’t. Getting caught means getting kicked out of the country.

However, this is nothing compared to the consequences our local associates face. They will be arrested by the police, interrogated and maybe convicted to several years of prison for charges of crimes against the state.

One of our local contacts got a taste of this when she was arrested after a mass demonstration for the rights of rural people. When she finally escaped the police’s searchlights she joined an underground organization fighting for the rights of Vietnamese workers.

Our local interpreter is a well-educated guy who’s constantly looking for new opportunities. He’s not scared, he says. He believes he can sweet-talk anybody, including the police. Even so he gets anxious when we take pictures outside a factory which produces shoes for Nike.

Later he tells me that he saw a car with people he believed was factory management. He was afraid they might call the police.

We don’t want to jeopardize the safety of our local associates. So we go and buy a new phone with a Vietnamese SIM-card. For the rest of our stay we only use this phone.

Both locals are Southerners. People in the South of Vietnam fought against the Communists in the Vietnam War. Many of them still believe in the ideas of democracy and personal freedom. Some take advantage of the fact that the authorities can’t control the internet – although they try. Both our local team members use foreign websites to blog about the conditions and lives of ordinary people in Vietnam.

Our presence in the country, however, is good news to them. They know that we are a weapon of mass communication. Through us they can reach millions of European consumers.
Their dedication inspires us a lot. We spend hours discussing how to make the biggest possible impact and how to raise awareness among consumers about Nike’s responsibilities.
We also discuss how to keep our local crew safe. We decide that we don’t want to risk being caught carrying incriminating information.

Thus, before leaving we email our articles and erase the files from the computer. We put important papers in an envelope and send it to Denmark. The rest are dumped in different garbage bins in a shopping mall. The last thing we do is to erase all phone numbers and text messages from the Vietnamese mobile phone. Then we get of it.

Still we don’t feel completely safe. When our plane is in the air we suddenly look at each other and sigh with relief: We got out unnoticed.

Now all that’s left is to hope that our efforts can actually make a change for the people taking the real chances.'

Find out more about the work of the Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers and read the Real Deal on the production of running shoes, a joint study by 11 consumer organisations.

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