by Elizabeth Grossman

“We Trust You,” says the sign over the entrance to a factory in the Pratama Abadi manufacturing complex that produces Nike footwear in Tangerang, Indonesia, a city of 1.4 million about 12 miles west of Jakarta. Just inside “Factory 1″ hangs an enormous banner that reads (in English) “Craftsmanship – No Quality, No Work.” It pictures an older man kneeling as he works with a hand tool. Below him, in Indonesian, is the phrase, “There is no work without quality.” An image of Winged Victory – the original Nike – hovers above.

The first impressions upon entering Factory 1, a huge one-storey plant, are noise and heat. The ceilings are high and there are skylights and fans, but no air conditioning. (The outdoor temperature is in the 90s.) Conveyor belts and machines for sewing, cutting, trimming, and pressing whirr and clack. Music from a loudspeaker is muffled by machine sounds. To be heard, one almost has to shout. Row upon row of women in pale green blouses sit working on pieces of shoes in progress. There are a few work-stations where men manipulate the footwear and materials, but the overwhelming majority of the workers in this vast space are women.

I visited the plant in late October with Miriam Lara-Meloy, a writer and researcher at Hesperian, a non-profit organization based in Berkeley, CA that produces community healthcare books aimed at people traditionally underserved by formal healthcare institutions. Occupational health concerns are a particular focus, hence the interest in being able to visit a facility like this with such a large workforce.

Our Pratama Abadi hosts tell us that more than 18,000 people work at this complex of factories that turns out nearly 300,000 shoes a week. (The company is Korean-owned and has been here since 1989.) A work week is 6 days per week and the plant runs two shifts per day. A row of busses and dozens of motor bikes and motorcycles are parked inside the guarded entrance to the complex. There are dormitories here for “workers who want to stay,” but most don’t live on site. There’s a library (but no internet access) and a health clinic that also serves community residents. When I ask how many people are involved in making one shoe, I am told, “200.”

According to Nike’s 2009 Corporate Responsibility Report, this is one of about 40 different factories Nike contracts with in Indonesia. Seven of these make footwear. Altogether these footwear factories employ nearly 69,000 people. 81 percent of all Nike’s workers in Indonesia are female (the Tangerang factory workers are 83% female); their average age, 28. Our guides tell us the plant clinic has won a local award for its family planning services, that it offers prenatal care, and has midwives on staff. We are also told that most workers at this factory are members of the government-affiliated union known as SPSI.

Piecing Shoes Together
Where we enter the factory, which makes the parts of shoes known as “uppers,” large pieces of fabric and leather are piled. We don’t see where the large-scale cutting happens, but nearby, women are working machines that use forms that look like cookie-cutters to make the pieces that get stitched onto the top of sports shoes – including the Nike trademark “swoosh.” These pieces are small, and fingers and sewing-machine needles move quickly.

In other sections, women take partly formed shoes off a rolling belt and apply glues that attach “uppers” to soles. The application tool looks like a toothbrush. Big red buckets that hold adhesive, primer, and hazardous waste sit by the workers’ feet. The glues, says our guide, are water-based.

After I return home, I learn from Nike’s “Considered Chemistry Department” based at Nike headquarters in Oregon that “Primarily through the use of water based adhesives, VOC emissions for Nike Footwear have been reduced 95% from 1995 level.” These “water based primers and adhesives,” I am told via email, “typically contain around 50-60% water plus some PU (polyurethane), cross linker, and some remaining solvents (MEK [methyl ethyl ketone], ethyl acetate, etc.) Nike’s “Considered Design” program has an extensive list of restricted chemicals that includes numerous petroleum-based solvents and other volatile organic compounds. Some chemicals on the list are restricted by legislation; many others are not. Depending on product and use there is either routine or random testing – or both – for these compounds; testing protocols are described in Nike’s “Corporate Responsibility” web pages.

The only place odor is apparent on our tour is near the big pieces of leather and shoe fabric near the entrance to the plant. What I smelled, the Nike folks in Oregon tell me, might be the odor of natural tanned leather or the residual odor from polyurethane coating on leather or synthetics. Heat and noise, however, trump any other sensory impressions.

After the adhesive step, other women use small electric tools to trim excess material around from around shoe edges. Each worker does this with her hands under a small transparent hood that keeps the trimmings from flying all around. Some of the women on assembly lines wear white paper or cloth masks over their mouth and nose. I don’t notice anyone wearing earplugs. Every work station chair has a water bottle in a holder on the base of the chair. At the end of many work rows is a water cooler.

In another building shoe soles are formed in presses that resemble high-tech waffle irons. An adjacent machine with giant rollers is stretching and treating what I later learn is rubber. (Some is white and some is the pale brown color of maple-sugar candy.) Sheets of the stretchy material emerge from between the rollers and are immersed in a water bath, then in a tank containing a water-chemical mixture that coats the rubber to keep it from sticking together. Nike’s corporate responsibility report explains that the company has been working to reduce hazardous chemicals in this step as well.

The Health Report
At the clinic our Pratama Abadi guides tell us that the clinic has “a hearing conservation program” that tests workers’ hearing periodically. Monitoring programs also test workers for tuberculosis and for chemical exposures . Respiratory infections and asthma are by far the clinic’s most commonly recorded diseases. Headaches are among the top ten health complaints logged by the clinic. A study done by the company, we’re told, showed that these headaches were not occupationally caused . (Additional details were not provided and I’ve not yet found the study.)

Toward the end of the shoe-forming process, we stand near a machine that is radiating heat. I ask if it’s an oven of some sort. “It’s a chiller,” I’m told, where the shoes that have been heated for shaping are placed so that they’ll set. As we’re standing by this machine I recognize a tune coming over the loudspeaker: the Disney song “It’s a Small World.”

Walking through the densely populated and enormous factory watching what is clearly a very labor-intensive process left me with a couple of over-arching questions for Nike: At what point in product design is the manufacturing process analyzed for the number of steps, types of processes, and people it will involve? What are the feedback loops (if any) for suggested improvements that might come from those directly involved in the production process?

The answer from Nike: “This is a really good question as the long term sustainability of a company and product depend on being able to make a product that is: safe for the consumer; manufactured safely (for the worker and the environment); profitable, and appealing to the consumer. …Health and safety are often triggers for simplifying, automating or elimination of a process step or chemical. We are fortunate to have the market presence that lets us dedicate resources to health and safety, engineering, chemistry, sustainability, and product integrity.” But, I am also told, “It should be pointed out that we do not own factories or the material suppliers to them.”

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

Comments

  1. #1 Darby
    November 16, 2010

    Before grad school (so a while ago, in the 1980s) I worked in a mattress factory in Memphis, Tennessee. It was not all that different from what’s described here, except there was no union or programs for the employees of any kind. There was no air conditioning, it was summer, and I was from New York; it took me maybe a week to get used to working in the heat. I can’t tell if the factory described is supposed to be good, or bad, or neither. What it is, is familiar.

  2. #2 grrljock
    November 24, 2010

    Thank you for posting this. To put this in context, Indonesia is, of course, a tropical country, and air-conditioned factories are the exception rather than the rule. I know Nike took a lot of heat for its labor practices in Indonesia a while back, so the existence of the health clinic and worker’s union seems encouraging. I think we can only judge how far (or not) Nike has come by comparing the conditions observed here to conditions in factories used by other brands.

Current ye@r *