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(Solved) The Sweatshop Debate INTRODUCTION Nike is in many ways the quintessential global corporation. Established in 1972 by former University of Oregon...


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Nike: The Sweatshop Debate
INTRODUCTION
Nike is in many ways the quintessential global corporation. Established in 1972 by former University
of Oregon track star Phil Knight, Nike is now one of the leading marketers of athletic shoes and
apparel on the planet. In 2006 the company had $15 billion in annual revenues and sold its products in
some 140 countries. Nike does not do any manufacturing. Rather, it designs and markets its products,
while contracting for their manufacture from a global network of 600 factories scattered around the globe
that employ some 650,000 people.' This huge corporation has made founder Phil Knight into one of
the richest people in America. Nike's marketing phrase, "Just Do It!" has become as recognizable in
popular culture as its "swoosh" logo or the faces of its celebrity sponsors, such as Michael Jordan and
Tiger Woods.
For all of its successes, the company was dogged for more than a decade by repeated and
persistent accusations that its products were made in "sweatshops" where workers, many of them
children, slaved away in hazardous conditions for below-subsistence wages. Nike's wealth, its
detractors claimed, was built upon the backs of the world's poor. For many, Nike had become a
symbol of the evils of globalization-a rich Western corporation exploiting the world's poor to
provide expensive shoes and apparel to the pampered consumers of the developed world. Nike's
"Niketown" stores became standard targets for antiglobalization protestors. Several
nongovernmental organizations, such as San Francisco-based Global Exchange, a human rights
organization dedicated to promoting environmental, political, and social justice around the world,
targeted Nike for repeated criticism and protests.2 News organizations such as CBS's 48 Hours
hosted by Dan Rather ran exposes on working conditions in foreign factories that supply Nike.
Students on the campuses of several major U.S. universities with which Nike has lucrative
sponsorship deals protested against the ties, citing Nike's use of sweatshop labor.
For its part, Nike has taken many steps to try to counter the protests. Yes, it admits, there
have been problems in some overseas factories. But the company has signaled a commitment to
improving working conditions. It requires that foreign subcontractors meet minimum thresholds for
working conditions and pay. It has arranged for factories to he examined by independent auditors. It has
terminated contracts with factories that do not comply with its standards. But for all this effort, the
company continues to be a target of protests and a symbol of dissent. THE CASE AGAINST NIKE
Typical of the exposes against Nike was a CBS 48 Hours news report that aired on October 17, 1996.3
Reporter Roberta Basin visited a Nike factory in Vietnam. With a shot of the factory, her commentary
begin by saying that
The signs are everywhere of an American invasion in search of cheap labor. Millions of people who are literate,
disciplined, and desperate for jobs. This is Nike Town near what use to be called Saigon, one of four factories
Nike doesn't own but subcontracts to make a million shoes a month. It takes 25,000 workers, mostly young
women, to "Just Do It."
But the workers here don't share in Nike's huge profits. They work six days a week for only $40 a month, just 20
cents an hour. Baskin interviews one of the workers in the factory, a young woman named Lap. Baskin tells the
listener:
Her basic wage, even as sewing team leader, still doesn't amount to the minimum wage.... She's down to 85 pounds.
Like most of the young women who make shoes, she has little choice but to accept the low wages and long hours. Nike
says that it requires all subcontractors to obey local laws; but Lap has already put in much more overtime than the
annual legal limit: 200 hours. 1 Baskin then asks Lap what would happen if she wanted to leave. If she were sick or had something she
needed to take care of such as a sick relative, could she leave the factory? Through a translator, Lap
replies:
It is not possible if you haven't made enough shoes. You have to meet the quota before you can go home. The clear implication of the story was that Nike was at fault here for allowing such working
conditions to persist in the Vietnam factory, which, incidentally, was owned by a Korean company.
Another example of an attack on Nike's subcontracting practices came in June 1996 from Made in the USA,
a foundation largely financed by labor unions and domestic apparel manufacturers that oppose free trade with
low-wage countries. According to Joel Joseph, chairman of the foundation, a popular line of high-priced
Nike sneakers, the "Air Jordans," were put together made by 11-year-olds in Indonesia making 14 cents per
hour. A Nike spokeswoman, Donna Gibbs, countered that this statement was in fact false. According
to Gibbs, the average worker made 240,000 rupiah ($103) a month working a maximum 54-hour week, or
about 45 cents per hour. Moreover, Gibbs noted that Nike had staff members in each factory monitoring
conditions to make sure that they obeyed local minimum wage and child labor laws.'
Another example of the criticism against Nike is the following extract from a newsletter published
by Global Exchange:5
During the 1970s, most Nike shoes were made in South Korea and Taiwan. When workers there
gained new freedom to organize and wages began to rise, Nike looked for "greener pastures." It found them
in Indonesia and China, where Nike started producing in the 1980s, and most recently in Vietnam. The
majority of Nike shoes are made in Indonesia and China, countries with governments that prohibit
independent unions and set the minimum wage at rock bottom. The Indonesian government admits that
the minimum wage there does not provide enough to supply the basic needs of one person, let alone a
family. In early 1997 the entry-level wage was a miserable $2.46 a day. Labor groups estimate that a
livable wage in Indonesia is about $4.00 a day.
In Vietnam the pay is even less-20 cents an hour, or a mere $1.60 a day. But in urban Vietnam, three
simple meals cost about $2.10 a day, and then of course there is rent, transportation, clothing, health care,
and much more. According to Thuyen Nguyen of Vietnam Labor Watch, a living wage in Vietnam is at
least $3 a day. In another attack on Nike's practices, in September 1997 Global Exchange published a report on
working conditions in four Nike and Reebok subcontractors in Southern China. 6 Global Exchange, in
conjunction with two Hong Kong human rights groups, had interviewed workers at the factories in
1995 and again in 1997. According to Global Exchange, in one factory, owned by a Korean
subcontractor for Nike, workers as young as 13 earning as little as 10 cents an hour toiled up to 17 hours
daily in enforced silence. Talking during work was not allowed, with violators fined $1.20 to $3.60
according to the report. The practices were in violation of Chinese labor law, which states that no child
under 16 may work in a factory, and the Chinese minimum wage requirement of $1.90 for an eight-hour day.
Nike condemned the study as "erroneous," stating that it incorrectly stated the wages of workers and made
irresponsible accusations.
Global Exchange, however, continued to be a major thorn in Nike's side. In November 1997, the
organization obtained and then leaked a confidential report by Ernst & Young of an audit that Nike
had commissioned of a factory in Vietnam owned by a Nike subcontractor.' The factory had 9,200
workers and made 400,000 pairs of shoes a month. The Ernst & Young report painted a dismal
picture of thousands of young women, most under age 25, laboring 10'12 hours a day, six days a week,
in excessive heat and noise and in foul air, for slightly more than $10 a week. The report also found
that workers with skin or breathing problems had not been transferred to departments free of chemicals
and that more than half the workers who dealt with dangerous chemicals did not wear protective masks or
gloves. It claimed workers were exposed to carcinogens that exceeded local legal standards by 177 times
in parts of the plant and that 77 percent of the employees suffered from respiratory problems. 2 Put on the defensive yet again, Nike called a news conference and pointed out that it had
commissioned the report, and had acted on it. 8 The company stated that it had formulated an action plan
to deal with the problems cited in the report, and had slashed overtime, improved safety and ventilation,
and reduced the use of toxic chemicals. The company also asserted that the report showed that its internal
monitoring system had performed exactly as it should have. According to one spokesman, "This shows
our system of monitoring works. . . . We have uncovered these issues clearly before anyone else, and we
have moved fairly expeditiously to correct them." NIKE'S RESPONSES
Unaccustomed to playing defense, over the years Nike formulated a number of strategies and tactics to
deal with the problems of subcontractors' working conditions and pay. In 1996, Nike hired one-time U.S.
Ambassador to the United Nations and former Atlanta Mayor and Congressional representative
Andrew Young to assess working conditions in subcontractors' plants around the world. After completing
a two-week tour that involved inspecting 15 factories in three countries, Young released a mildly critical
report of Nike in mid-1997. He informed Nike it was doing a good job in treating workers, though it
should do better. According to Young, he did not see
sweatshops, or hostile conditions ... I saw crowded dorms ... but the workers were eating at least two
meals a day on the job and making what I was told were subsistence wages in those cultures.9
Young was widely criticized by human rights and labor groups for not taking his own translators and
for doing slipshod inspections, an assertion he repeatedly denied. In 1996, Nike joined a presidential task force designed to find a way of banishing sweatshops in the
shoe and clothing industries. The task force included industry leaders such as Nike, representatives
from human rights groups, and labor leaders. In April 1997, the task force announced a workers'
rights agreement that U.S. companies could accept when manufacturing abroad. The accord
limited the workweek to 60 hours and called for paying at least the local minimum wage in foreign
factories. The task force also agreed to establish an independent monitoring association-later named
the Fair Labor Association (FLA)-to assess whether companies are abiding by the code.10
The FLA now includes among its members the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the National
Council of Churches, the International Labor Rights Fund, some 135 universities (universities have
extensive licensing agreements with sports apparel companies such as Nike), and companies such as
Nike, Reebok, and Levi Strauss.
In early 1997, Nike also began to commission independent organizations such as Ernst & Young to
audit its subcontractors' factories. In September 1997, Nike tried to show its critics that it was
involved in more than just a public relations exercise when it terminated its relationship with four
Indonesian subcontractors, stating that these subcontractors had refused to comply with the
company's standard for wage levels and working conditions. Nike identified one of the
subcontractors, Seyon, which manufactured specialty sports gloves for Nike. Nike said that Seyon
refused to meet a 10.7 percent
increase in the monthly wage, to $70.30, declared by the Indonesian
government in April 1997.11
On May 12, 1998, in a speech given at the National Press Club, Phil Knight spelled out in detail a
series of initiatives designed to improve working conditions for the 500,000 people that make
products for Nike as subcontractors. Among the initiatives Knight highlighted were the following: • We have effectively changed our minimum age limits from the ILO (International Labor
Organization) standards of 15 in most countries and 14 in developing countries to 18 in
all footwear manufacturing and 16 in all other types of manufacturing (apparel,
accessories and equipment). Existing workers legally employed under the former limits
were grand-fathered into the new requirements. • During the past 13 months we have moved to a 100 percent factory audit scheme, where
every Nike contract factory will receive an annual check by PricewaterhouseCoopers
teams who are specially trained on our Code of Conduct Owner's Manual and
audit/monitoring procedures. To date they have performed about 300 such monitoring
visits. In a few instances in apparel factories they have found workers under our age 3 standards. Those factories have been required to raise their standards to 17 years of age, to
require three documents certifying age, and to redouble their efforts to ensure workers
meet those standards through interviews and records checks. • Our goal was to ensure workers around the globe are protected by requiring factories to
have no workers exposed to levels above those mandated by the permissible exposure
limits (PELs) for chemicals prescribed in the OSHA indoor air quality standards. The business press applauded these moves, but Nike's long-term adversaries in the debate over the
use of foreign labor greeted them skeptically. While conceding that's Nike's policies were an
improvement, one critic writing in The New York Times noted that
Mr. Knight's child labor initiative is ... a smokescreen. Child labor has not been a big problem with Nike, and Philip
Knight knows that better than anyone. But public relations is public relations. So he announces that he's not
going to let the factories hire kids, and suddenly that's the headline.
Mr. Knight is like a three-card monte player. You have to keep a close eye on him at all times.
The biggest problem with Nike is that its overseas workers make wretched, below-subsistence wages. It's not the
minimum age that needs raising, it's the minimum wage. Most of the workers in Nike factories in China and Vietnam
make less than $2 a day, well below the subsistence levels in those countries. In Indonesia the pay is less than $1 a
day.
The company's current strategy is to reshape its public image while doing as little as possible for the workers. Does
anyone think it was an accident that Nike set up shop in human rights sinkholes, where labor organizing was
viewed as a criminal activity and deeply impoverished workers were willing, even eager, to take their places on
assembly lines and work for next to nothing?' Other critics question the value of Nike's auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Dara O'Rourke,
an assistant professor at MIT, followed the PwC auditors around several factories in China, Korea,
and Vietnam. He concluded that although the auditors found minor violations of labor laws and
codes of conduct, they missed major labor practice issues including hazardous working conditions,
violations of overtime laws, and violation of wage laws. The problem, according to O'Rourke,
was that the auditors had limited training, and relied on factory managers for data and to set up
interviews with workers, all of which were performed in the factories. The auditors, in other
words, were getting an incomplete and somewhat sanitized view of conditions in the factory."
THE CONTROVERSY CONTINUES Fueled perhaps by the unforgiving criticisms of Nike that continued after Phil Knight's May 1998 speech, a
wave of protests against Nike occurred on many university campuses beginning in 1998 and continuing
into 2001. The moving force behind the protests was the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). The
USAS argued that the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which grew out of the Presidential task force on
sweatshops, was an industry tool, and not a truly independent auditor of foreign factories. The USAS set
up an alternative independent auditing organization, the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), which they
charged with auditing factories that produce products under collegiate licensing programs (Nike is a
high-profile supplier of products under these programs). The WRC is backed, and partly funded, by labor
unions and refuses to cooperate with companies, arguing that doing so would jeopardize its independence.
By mid-2000, the WRC had persuaded some 48 universities to join the WRC, including all nine campuses of
the University of California systems, the University o f Michigan, and the University of Oregon, Phil
Knight's alma mater. When Knight heard that the University of Oregon would join the WRC, as
opposed to the FLA, he withdrew a planned $30 million donation to the University. Despite Knight's
opposition, in November 2000 another major university in the northwest, the University of Etch-A-Sketch Ethics 4 The Ohio Art Company is perhaps best known as the producer of one of the top-selling toys of all time,
the venerable Etch-A-Sketch. More than 100 million of the Washington, announced that it too would
join the WRC, although it would also retain its membership in the FLA.
Nike continued to push forward with its own initiatives, updating progress on its Web site. In April
2000, in response to accusations that it was still hiding conditions, it announced that it would release the
complete reports of all independent audits of its subcontractors' plants. Global Exchange continued to
criticize the company, arguing in mid-2001 that the company was not living up to Phil Knight's 1998 promises
and that it was intimidating workers from speaking out about abuses."
Case Discussion Questions
1. Should Nike be held responsible for working conditions in foreign factories that it does not own,
but where subcontractors make products for Nike? 2. What labor standards regarding safety, working conditions, overtime, and the like, should Nike
hold foreign factories to: those prevailing in that country or those prevailing in the United
States? 3. In Indonesia, an income of $2.28 a day, the base pay of Nike factory workers, is double the daily income of about half the working population. Half of all adults in Indonesia are farmers, who
receive less than $1 a day. Given these national standards, is it appropriate to criticize Nike for the
low pay rates of its subcontractors in Indonesia? 4. Do you think Nike needs to make any changes to its current policy? If so what? Should Nike
make changes even if they hinder the ability of the company to compete in the marketplace? 5

 


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