Reebok Corp. acted responsibly and wisely when it canceled its shoe production contract at the Mae Sot, Thailand, facility of Bangkok Rubber Co., where the manufacturer was paying Burmese refugees less than the local minimum wage.
``Responsibly and wisely?'' critics might ask. ``When Reebok is still doing business withBangkok Rubber in other locations? If Reebok was really serious, why didn't the company cancel ALL its business with Bangkok Rubber?''
Reebok could indeed have done that to protest the exploitation of Burmese refugees at Mae Sot-just as rubber manufacturers, one by one, abandoned South Africa to protest apartheid. But the situation with Bangkok Rubber is different than that which once prevailed in South Africa.
Apartheid in South Africa was a nationwide system of oppression, sanctioned by the government. The below-minimum wages for workers at Mae Sot are patently against Thai law (although Bangkok Rubber claims otherwise) and apparently are not widespread in Thai footwear manufacturing. Even Bangkok Rubber doesn't practice wage discrimination at any of its other facilities.
If Reebok had pulled all its business with Bangkok Rubber, all that would have created was unemployment and suffering for thousands of Thai workers. By canceling contracts at Mae Sot, however, Reebok sent a clear message that it will not countenance the mistreatment of workers anywhere in its production network.
Furthermore, if Reebok plans to transfer all its Mae Sot production to other Bangkok Rubber plants, then Bangkok Rubber must comply-at the prevailing national wage. In any case, Bangkok Rubber will end up paying the legal wage for all its Reebok production-whether for Burmese workers at Mae Sot or Thai workers elsewhere.
Of course, Bangkok Rubber officials obviously are counting on having enough business from other contractors to keep the Mae Sot plant humming along at the status quo.
Here's hoping they're wrong.
Moore is Rubber & Plastics News' Washington Bureau reporter.