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Err, Jordan? // Sweatshop foes target NBA star

Michael Jordan earns millions, and wants many millions more, for playing basketball.

Across the Pacific, in factories where Nike, the company he helped make famous, manufactures its shoes, the workers often earn pennies for an hour's work.

The monthly wage of the average Nike worker in Indonesia is roughly equal to the U.S. price of a pair of Air Jordans ($115).

Critics have complained for years that Nike is exploiting poor countries for big profit. Pickets are not uncommon. They showed up last week outside the Nike tent at the NCAA Track and Field Championships.

Now, the issue is in the news again, thanks to Kathie Lee Gifford's recent exposure to the world of sweatshop manufacturing.

Gifford said last week she intends to talk to Jordan to try to enlist him in her fight against sweatshops. Jordan, of course, is the No. 1 endorser of Nike products. He has his name on a line of clothing and Air Jordan shoes.

So on Thursday, a day after his Chicago Bulls opened the NBA Finals with a victory, Jordan found himself questioned about his association with Nike and its manufacturing practices.

"I heard that Kathie Lee has kind of put me and other people in her fight or whatever," Jordan said. "But I think that's Nike's decision to do what they can to make sure everything is correctly done. I don't know the complete situation. Why should I? I'm trying to do my job. Hopefully, Nike will do the right thing, whatever that might be."

Nike says it's already doing the right thing. Company spokesman Donna Gibbs said Nike considers itself a leader in improving working conditions in the countries where it makes its products.

"It's also too bad that Kathie Lee Gifford has found it necessary to avoid the media spotlight by pushing Michael Jordan into it," Gibbs said.

Gifford became involved in the issue when she was accused of tolerating the use of sweatshops to produce the clothing line that bears her name. She expressed shock at the report and since has announced her intention to lead a campaign against sweatshop abuses.

NBA Commissioner David Stern found Gifford's approach novel.

"I think that's a great defense when you get caught with something and you begin casting aspersions at other people," he said.

Joel Joseph, chairman of the Made In USA Foundation, said Nike is the chief culprit among the many manufacturers, including other shoe companies, who take advantage of poverty-stricken lands to make gigantic profits.

"The other ones are bad, too," Joseph said. "I think Nike is particularly bad because wherever we pull up the rug and find child labor, Nike is there. I know children are employed at the Nike plant in Indonesia. I know children are employed making Nike soccer balls in Pakistan."

Gibbs said Joseph's group is backed by unions that oppose international trade with Third World countries.

Nike insists it does not purposely hire child workers. The company said it requires subcontractors to agree to a memorandum of understanding that prohibits child labor and requires compliance with minimum wage laws.

Gibbs admits there is a problem in Pakistan, where subcontractors and even smaller operations use young children to stitch soccer balls.

"Child labor is really an epidemic in Pakistan," Gibbs said. "It's something we're very concerned about. It's a centuries-old practice. Nike is new to Pakistan. We've been subcontracting production there for less than a year. In that time, we've taken more steps to protect worker rights than companies that have worked in the country for decades."

Nike makes 35 percent of its shoes in Indonesia, and Gibbs said the company strives to make sure that no worker is under age 16.

"In Indonesia alone, we've got about 40,000 workers just in footwear facilities," Gibbs said. "Again we endeavor to have impeccable oversight, but unfortunately we don't live in a perfect world and all we can do is aggressively monitor the situation."

Nike is so sensitive about the issue that it released a list of the minimum wage in each country that produces its shoes along with the average it pays to its workers.

In Indonesia, the minimum wage is $56 per month, or about 25 cents an hour based on a 55-hour workweek. Nike says that while some of its employees may be paid the minimum wage, the average salary it pays its Indonesian workers is $117 per month, or 53 cents an hour.