Students protest to demand the University end its contract with Nike over alleged human rights abuses

Chase Karacostas

Students gathered on the steps of the UT Tower at noon Monday to protest the University’s contract with Nike, accusing the multinational footwear company of letting human rights abuses occur in their Hansae Vietnam factory.

United Students Against Sweatshops, Native American and Indigenous Collective and three other student organizations demanded an audience with President Gregory Fenves to insist the University end its contract with Nike.

The Hansae factory ­— located in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — produces the University’s Nike-branded athletic apparel. Mass fainting of workers, unsafe spraying of toxic solvents and working conditions exceeding 90 degrees are some of the alleged human rights abuses at the factory, according to the Worker Rights Consortium. 

USAS has met with university leadership for the past two years to discuss these issues. Fenves attended one out of approximately five total meetings, chief communications officer Gary Susswein said.

USAS member Aileen Bazan said their talks have still not amounted to enough and that she’s been “disheartened” by the University’s lackluster response.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Bazan, a Mexican-American studies and history sophomore. “Workers are still being treated really badly. They’re still waiting on us to do something and help them.”

A report on WRC’s website said it started auditing the factory’s labor conditions in October 2015 and identified more than 10 violations of their labor standards. Even though Nike and other brands who use the factory have been conducting labor rights audits for more than a decade, the report said none of them identified the “most serious labor rights violations.”

During the hour-long protest, approximately 25 students performed several chants including “Hey, Fenves. Get off it. Put people over profit” to get Fenves’s attention in front of the Tower.

At 12:45 p.m., the protesters rushed up to the third floor of the Tower while continuing their chants and holding signs with messages such as “Cut the contract” and “Nike Lies.”

Fenves’ chief of staff Carlos Martinez met with Andrea Flores, USAS coordinating committee member, to discuss the group’s grievances. Flores said Martinez understood that USAS isn’t happy with the current status quo. However, Flores recalled that Martinez told her ongoing conversations are crucial to progress, to which she reminded him that they’ve been having talks for more than a year with unsatisfactory progress.

“Maybe they have ongoing conversations, and it’s fruitful to them,” said Flores, a psychology senior. “But as far as workers on the ground can tell, absolutely nothing is different … I’ve made it clear that no matter what ongoing conversations they have, it’s not acceptable that it’s taking this long. If they truly want to protect workers, they’re going to take action.”

Supplementing the University’s membership with WRC, Susswein said the administration recently placed Craig Westemeier on WRC’s board in response to lobbying from USAS. Westemeier is also on the board of the Fair Labor Association, which performs inspections of working conditions of factories affiliated with Nike. Nike is accredited by the association, according to their website. 

“The University takes these issues seriously,” Susswein said. “We are working with Nike to make sure the factories they use treat workers well and respect human rights.”