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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shoemaker Bares Soul

Reebok International Ltd. this week became the first footwear company to release an in-depth, third-party examination of labor conditions in the factories that make its products. We aren't making the report public because it shows our company in an unequivocally favorable light - far from it. We're releasing it because we think it's time to confront and accept responsibility for correcting the sometimes abusive conditions in factories overseas. We'd like to encourage other multinational corporations to follow suit.

The report, titled Peduli Hak (Indonesian for "Caring for Rights"), assesses conditions in two factories, PT Dong Joe Indonesia and PT Tong Yang Indonesia, which employ approximately 10,000 workers. Reebok doesn't own these factories; we selected them because they account for more than 75 percent of our footwear production in Indonesia and have many similarities with other athletic footwear factories in Asia.

We chose the independent research and consulting firm Insan Hitawasana Sejahtera to perform the assessment based on the recommendation of leading human rights professionals. We guaranteed IHS full, unimpeded access to factory records and workers and promised to make the IHS report public.

The report, based on 1,400 hours spent inspecting the plants, observing working procedures and interviewing workers for 14 months, highlights some disturbing facts about the working conditions there. It criticizes how managers communicate with workers, noting that most workers are illiterate and can't understand their rights under their collective bargaining agreement or the details of their wage statements. The report also found it was harder for women to obtain promotions. It faulted the factories' health and safety procedures, particularly procedures governing the use and handling of chemicals. And it describes steps the factories' owners have been taking to rectify these problems.

Some flaws presented more of a challenge than others. It's fairly simple to improve inadequate lighting, or ventilation where workers were being exposed to chemicals. And factories raised pay to bring it in line with the government's determination of a minimum living wage.

But it was altogether different when inspectors reported that drums containing the remains of hazardous substances were routinely left in publicly accessible areas, in violation of local law. When management changed its procedures to comply with the law, local community members protested; they had been collecting the drums and reselling them. In response, the factories adopted policies to allow for local collection of scrap metal and other non-hazardous waste materials.

Why did we undertake this potentially damaging workplace assessment, and why was it important to make the results public?

The simple answer is because of the commitment we've made to respect the fundamental human rights of the nearly 25,000 workers in Asia who produce our footwear. That's why we placed a heavy emphasis on worker interviews, why we made Indonesian-language copies of the report available to the workers and why we presented the report at a meeting with our footwear contractors.

We also want to encourage other multinational corporations to open the doors of the factories manufacturing their products to inspections. We want to show that a critical report about factory conditions can be disclosed without the sky falling. And we'd like to change the attitude of many companies that they have no responsibility for conditions in factories they don't own or the treatment of workers who aren't their employees.

In 1992, Reebok adopted a code of conduct requiring that the factories of our global suppliers comply with internationally recognized human rights standards. We've incorporated that code of conduct into our contractual agreements with factory owners and have monitored their compliance.

Despite these efforts, and those of some other companies, critics remained skeptical. They rightly point out that codes of conduct are little more than window dressing unless an effective process determines whether standards are being met.

The Peduli Hak assessment was an attempt to address these concerns. But many corporations remain fearful; although many now have codes of conduct, they are unwilling to undergo monitoring, or suffer the embarrassment and expense that exposing workplace conditions might produce.

This fear of monitoring is seen in the reluctance of many U.S.-based companies to join the Fair Labor Association, chaired by former White House counsel Charles Ruff. The FLA has adopted procedures to accredit independent monitors who will be qualified to inspect factories for compliance with a Workplace Code of Conduct covering nine key areas: child labor, forced labor, discrimination, harassment, freedom of association, wages, health and safety, hours of work and overtime compensation.

Reebok and nine other companies - Adidas-Salamon AG, Kathie Lee Gifford, Levi Strauss & Co., Liz Claiborne, L.L. Bean, Nicole Miller, Nike, Patagonia and Phillips Van Heusen - have agreed to participate in the FLA's monitoring program. This doesn't amount to the broadly representative segment of the business community that any monitoring program will require to be effective. Of course, we hope the Peduli Hak assessment will benefit thousands of workers in Asia - but we also hope that its publication will encourage other companies to join us in seeking solutions to substandard workplace conditions in the global economy.

Paul Fireman is chairman and CEO of Reebok International Ltd. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post. The Peduli Hak report is available online at