Business / Nike


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Autor:  anton  19 April 2011
Words: 1127   |   Pages: 5
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It's not easy being a consumer in the global economy. Moral dilemmas confront you at every turn. Was this pair of space-age Nike shoes produced in an Asian sweatshop? Dare I sheathe my feet in the product of modern-day slave labour? Should I boycott? Then again, who am I to pass judgment on the workplace norms of other people? "Exploitation" is a culturally relative concept, isn't it? Why do I have to deal with this now? Why don't those Asian governments enforce fair working conditions and leave me to frolic carefree through my local mall? And for crying out loud, why, if the labour is so cheap over there, do these Nike sneakers cost $200?

This last question, though less existentially weighty, probably has more impact on people--and on Nike--than any other. Even activists who are organizing awareness campaigns about Nike's labour practices have to admit it. "Ultimately, I don't think Nike's recent downturn in sales has that much to do with their sweatshop practices," says Toronto labour activist Bob Jeffcott, commenting on Nike's recent troubles with its bottom line. "People just find it outrageous that they're paying so much for a pair of running shoes."

But as far as Jeffcott is concerned, even that question is a step in the right direction, because it means Nike's carefully crafted image is falling apart. And that, ultimately, is what the anti-Nike awareness campaign--including the international day of protest against Nike, which takes place this Saturday, April 18--is all about. Nike's not selling shoes, Jeffcott explains, it's selling a manufactured identity. Once people question that identity in any way, they're more open to his message: Nike's not just taking you to the cleaners, it's taking 500,000 Asian sweatshop workers to the cleaners with you.

But if people choose not to buy Nike, a report issued late last year says that there is really no alternative. The report, by Hong Kong's Asia Monitor Resource Centre, states that in some Chinese sweatshops workers spend half the day producing Nike shoes, the other half producing Adidas. Reebok also relies heavily on Asian sweatshops. Does anyone make an ethical shoe anymore? "No," says Jacques Bertrand of Montreal-based Development and Peace. "They just make money."


Whether for reasons of political awareness, retail price, market saturation or fashion whimsy, Nike is a company in trouble. One month ago, the world's leading athletic footwear corporation announced that quarterly profits were down 69 per cent from the previous year. Footwear sales globally are the slowest they've been in a decade. Nike was forced to lay off 1,600 of the 22,000 people it employs directly. (Nike's Asian manufacturing is handled by sub-contractors, so those half-million sweatshop workers are technically not Nike employees.) Company spokesperson Vada Manager points out that Nike's quarterly revenues are still well over $2 billion. Manager admits that the anti-Nike campaigns--like the letter-writing campaign organized by Bertrand which resulted in 147,000 letters of protest flooding Nike headquarters--are a factor in Nike's recent troubles, but says the impact is "unquantifiable."

Perhaps, but the political campaigns have been remarkably effective in raising awareness of Asian sweatshop practices. The story has become a favourite of mainstream U.S. media: Nike's sub-contractors are mostly based in Taiwan, Hong Kong or South Korea, but they set up shop in Indonesia, China or Vietnam, where labour standards are less strict. Workers, mostly young women, some barely teenagers at age 13, work 12-hour days for less than minimum wage. Stories of physical and sexual abuse abound. In China, the subcontractors withhold employees' first month of wages as a bond to keep them from leaving. When Indonesia raised its minimum wage by 20 cents to $2.46 U.S. a day, Nike executive Jim Small publicly stated that "Indonesia is pricing itself out of the market."

In response to the campaigns, Nike spends a lot of money creating good spin, an attempt to prop up its "Just Do It"/"Yes I Can" empowerment image, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. It hired international consultants Ernst & Young to monitor its overseas operations; the official report was a whitewash, but an internal company memo was leaked to the New York Times detailing the ongoing sweatshop abuses. Nike established a code of conduct for its overseas subcontractors, but employees in many factories say they have never heard of it. When university students plan a campus awareness campaign, Nike quickly sends in public relations staff to nip it in the bud. "They hire stooges to do snow jobs when the world knows what the truth is," says Trim Bissell of the Campaign for Labour Rights, which is organizing Saturday's international protest.

Bissell admits that other companies are part of the problem, that Nike is a lightning rod to focus attention on the issue. Still, he says, there's good reason to target Nike: "Nike is the market leader, and they have a special moral responsibility for their workers. They and their subcontractors move jobs to the places where workers are most vulnerable. They set the standard." If the market leader changes its practices, Bissell argues, others in the industry will follow suit.

Nike spokesperson Manager disagrees: "The flaw in that logic is that it allows our competitors to continue to do nothing." If Nike acts alone to increase wages and improve working conditions, Manager says, costs will rise and its competitors will gain the advantage.

Manager scoffs at the suggestion that Nike could easily make up those additional costs by cutting back on its lucrative endorsement deals, such as the $20 million a year paid to Michael Jordan or the $200 million paid to the Brazilian soccer team. "That argument simply doesn't hold water. It doesn't reflect the realities of the global economy."

If so, the realities of the global economy are pretty grim. Nike is perhaps the most skilled corporation in the world at playing First World and Third World economies against one another. Somewhere along the line, Nike decided to shut down its U.S. shoe manufacturing and move it to Asia, not so it could sell a cheaper shoe, but so it could make a cheaper shoe and give even more money to already filthy rich athletes.

This is the broader challenge for the political activists. Cutting into Nike's profits is one thing, but transforming global economics is another. Says Development and Peace's Bertrand: "We need to find some kind of formula, like an independent foundation that would set standards and monitor them, and make sure Nike lives up to its own code of conduct."

Bertrand harkens back to the size of Nike's Asian workforce, over half a million strong, to underline his point. "That's what's so extraordinary about this. If Nike respected its own code, a lot of people's lives would truly change for the better."

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