WHEN Nike, America's most powerful sports footwear maker, asked a prominent former civil rights leader and diplomat to help it out of a public relations jam, it seemed like a good idea. Plagued by accusations of poverty-line wages, abusive managers and bad conditions in the Asian factories which fuel its huge profits, the Oregon-based firm hired Andrew Young, former United Nations Ambassador under Jimmy Carter, to probe the issue. When Mr Young's consulting firm GoodWorks was dispatched in April to Nike's plants in China, Indonesia and Vietnam, Rhoda Karpatkin, president of the watchdog Consumers Union, warned that it seemed like a 'public relations ploy' that should be greeted by the public with scepticism. Having returned from his trip with a virtual clean bill of health for Nike, Mr Young's report, issued last week, has indeed developed into a PR embarrassment for the company, which had hoped it would put the ghosts of the sweatshop issue to rest. 'Mr Young came back with a report that could hardly have been more flattering if it had been written by Nike itself,' wrote New York Times commentator Bob Herbert. The row over the Young-Nike relationship has not only placed unwanted attention back on to Nike's overseas labour practices, but thrust the spotlight onto a growing trend for PR-challenged corporations to pay high-profile consultants to conduct so-called independent investigations into their operations. Nike was not the first to explore this option. Texaco has hired a former federal judge to look into accusations of racism amongst its managers; Mitsubishi employed a former labour secretary to probe sexual harassment in its ranks; and General Motors paid a former FBI director to investigate an alleged cover-up over a line of trucks found to be defective. No matter how honest Mr Young's intentions, the obviously lacklustre inspections of the Nike plants made by his team, and the anodyne conclusions he draws in his report, have brought into question the credibility of investigations carried out by an entity which is on the company's payroll. It is also an inauspicious sequel to a ground-breaking agreement signed between the US government and the apparel industry this year, under which Nike, Reebok and other major US garment houses will adopt a stringent code of conduct on overseas factories, including a maximum 60-hour week and fair wage levels. The good news for Nike was that the Young report revealed their factories to be 'clean, organised, adequately ventilated and well-lit' and said it found no evidence of abuse or maltreatment of the workforce. Mr Young said Nike was no worse than similar firms operating in Asia, and explained that its low wages were merely the product of the 'economic logic' of the global regime. His only mild criticism involved the need for workers to have proper channels to file grievances. Nike is sensitive to complaints about its labour standards, and is eager to avoid the kind of publicity which might lead to consumer backlash. It was naturally delighted with the Young report findings, and took out full-page ads in the New York Times and other major newspapers to trumpet the results. It has since weathered a chorus of protest that the report was a stage-managed PR stunt. Critics seized on Mr Young's admission that he spent only three or four hours looking at each plant, was accompanied by Nike staff, and relied on interpreters supplied by Nike to talk to workers. He barely touched on the issue of low wages, arguing that it was beyond his expertise and an industry-wide problem rather than the responsibility of one firm. He also blamed reports of abuse in the factories as products of a cultural clash between the local staff and the managers, who are usually Taiwanese contracted to run the factories. If Nike wanted to close the book on the labour standards issue, the Young report appears to have had the reverse effect. It prompted several publications in the US to revisit the issue, dragging up old complaints, most notably regarding the companies' Vietnam operations, where reports of staff being harassed, abused and denied sick pay by managers have been numerous. Americans, used to listening to protectionist politicians berating low-wage nations for stealing US jobs, are not comforted by corporate arguments that they merely pay whatever happens to be the going rate.