Reebok, the American sports shoe manufacturer, has been publicly embarrassed by Dita Sari, an Indonesian labor activist who has refused to accept a human rights award from the sporting goods corporation. Every year Reebok honors"champions and torchbearers in the fight for a better world" with their $50,000 (£35,400) Reebok Human Rights Award, and in December last year announced that Ms Sari would be a recipient.
But rather than attend the award ceremony at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City tonight, Ms Sari has issued a statement explaining why she could not take money from Reebok. "I have taken this award into very deep consideration. We finally decide not to accept this. On the one hand, this is a kind of recognition of the struggle and the hard work that we have done for years. But on the other hand, we are very conscious of the condition of the Reebok workers in Third World countries, such as Indonesia, Mexico, China, Thailand, Brazil and Vietnam."
Labor activist Dita Indah Sari speaks to during a rally against the Golkar Party in front of the Supreme Court in Jakarta, Indonesia, in this Tuesday, July 31, 2001 file photo. Sari has turned down a $50,000 human rights award from sporting goods giant Reebok Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2002 in protest at the low wages the company allegedly pay its workers in her homeland. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
In 1995, Ms Sari was arrested and tortured by the Indonesian police after leading a strike of 5,000 workers of Indoshoes Inti Industry. This company operated in West Java, and produced shoes for Reebok and Adidas. The workers demanded an increase of their wages. At the time, they were paid $1 (70p) for working an eight-hour day. "I have seen for myself how the (factory) treated the workers, and used the police to repress the strikers," said Ms Sari.
Goods for Reebok and other foreign shoe and clothing companies are manufactured in Indonesia by sub-contractor companies. In their plants, the workers are typically paid about $1.50 a day. "They then have to live in a slum area, surrounded by poor and unhealthy conditions, especially for their children," said Ms Sari. "At the same time, Reebok collects millions of dollars of profit every year, directly contributed by these workers. The low pay and exploitation of the workers of Indonesia, Mexico and Vietnam are the main reasons why we will not accept this award."
Ms Sari is 29 and began her political activism 10 years ago. Despite her youth, her passion and charisma made her an influential member of the labor movement which faced constant oppression under President Suharto. She has participated in setting up trade unions, in leading illegal strikes and rallies to try to improve workers' conditions and agitating for open democracy in Indonesia. For her role in these political struggles, Ms Sari was frequently arrested, and she has been tortured and imprisoned. In 1996 she was imprisoned after leading a demonstration by 20,000 workers.
At her trial in 1997 Ms Sari handed flowers to the judge, prosecutor and hundreds of supporters packed into the public gallery. She then began reading a statement, and as she read people sang the popular song of struggle, "Hymn of Blood." As she neared the end of her speech, tears flowed down her cheeks. When the sentences were handed down, the crowd shouted: "The court is rigged." While Ms Sari was in prison she was elected chairperson of the trade union, the National Front for Indonesian Workers Struggle (FNPBI). She was released from prison in 1999 after the collapse of President Suharto, and after an international campaign and publicity from Amnesty International. In 2000 the FNPBI was recognized by the Indonesian government. Since her release she has continued to organize and agitate for improved conditions for workers in Indonesia. "We cannot tolerate the way multi-national companies treat the workers of third world countries," she said last week.
Reebok said they still applauded Ms Sari's efforts to improve labor and human rights. "Reebok will continue working to improve labor rights, alongside other corporations. We understand Dita Sari's drive to achieve the same goal in her own unique way."
"We feel like we are fighting for the same thing," said Jill Tucker from the company's Hong Kong office.
In 1999 Reebok, published an independent study criticizing conditions in Indonesian factories manufacturing its products. The study into two factories showed lax health and safety conditions. The factories emitted toxins, exposed workers to chemicals that caused rashes or vomiting and failed to warn employees of the risks, the report said. The company's website states: "At Reebok, we're passionate about human rights".
In 1992, the company began implementing the first code of work standards in the athletic footwear industry.
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd