Beast of the Month - June 1997
Phil Knight, CEO, The Nike Corporation
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
"Is it the shoes?"
Nike, in Greek Mythology, is the goddess of victory. That being said, the Nike Corporation has much to represent the goddess of old. Their poster boy for more than a decade, athlete of the 90's and greatest basketball player of all time Michael Jordan, is very much on route to leading the Chicago Bulls to their fifth NBA championship. Meanwhile, their latest poster boy, the hottest name in sports and Sports Illustrated's man of the year, multi-racial golfing sensation Tiger Woods, has proven himself worthy of the hype, and looks to be on his way to an unbelievably dominating career on the PGA tour. And though Andre Agassi is a balding, porked-out has been (though quite rich and married to Brooke Shields), his chief rival and fellow Nike endorser Pete Sampras is still at the top of his tennis game, and is the favorite to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open again this year. Ah, yes, with success like this, Nike is indeed the embodiment of winning that all who compete in athletics strive for, and to represent their products is much a reward in and of itself, as it declares that the performer truly is worthy of the Nike label.
But where there is the victor, there is the vanquished.
For the past two months, stories have been circulating on the internet (including within The Konformist) of atrocious conditions in the Third World Nike factories of Indonesia and Vietnam. During late May, as Jordan, Woods, and Sampras were gearing up for a butt-kicking summer, the stories finally got some mainstream notice, albeit in the comic pages. Gary Trudeau, the Pulitzer Prize-winner behind Doonesbury, gave a whack (though a rather tame one) at Nike for the treatment of workers in Vietnam.
Just what kind of treatment are we talking about? How about this:
In Indonesia, the government itself says that the minimum wage, which is now $2.50 a day in Jakarta, covers only 90 percent of the basic subsistence needs of one person.
The average work day in is 11.5 hours and 81% of workers work seven days a week.
Workers who take sick leave are dismissed instantly, irrespective of whether they have a doctor's certificate. This puts pressure on them to work in these extreme conditions even when they are sick. In one case a woman fainted on the job, was not taken to the medical clinic and later died.
The average age of Indonesian workers is 16 and 41% of workers surveyed were under 16 when they first started working (one was only 11 when she started at the factory).
The wage in Vietnam of $1.60 a day is not enough for three decent meals a day, let alone housing, transportation, clothing and health care.
Forced overtime in Vietnam of up to 12 hours a day in noisy, hot factories that are filled with the smell of paint and glue, six to seven days a week. While Vietnam's labor laws say the maximum yearly overtime is 200 hours, on average Nike workers are forced to work 500+ hours per year. If workers refuse, they are punished or receive a warning. After three warnings, they're fired.
Numerous examples of Vietnamese workers making below the minimum wage of $45 per month. Moreover, all 35 workers interviewed in depth by Thuyen Nguyen, of Vietnam Labor Watch, said they received below minimum wage for their first 90 days at the factory, a clear violation of the minimum wage law.
Workers in Vietnam say they do not get the legally mandated compensation for overtime wages, night shift wages or Sunday wages, and their pay stubs confirm this. Over 60% of the workers interviewed complained that when they did not meet their daily quota, they were forced to work extra hours until reaching the quota with no overtime pay at all.
In an 8-hour shift, workers are not allowed to go to the bathroom more than once, and are not allowed to have a drink of water more than twice.
It is a common occurrence for workers to faint from exhaustion, heat, fumes and poor nutrition during their shifts.
Health care is inadequate. At the Sam Yang factory, with 6000 employees, one doctor works only two hours a day but the factory operates 20 hours a day.
Worse than the physical conditions are the management practices. The men and women supervising factory workers routinely engage in conduct that is specifically designed to humiliate these women, to take away their human dignity and to make them feel worthless. Some examples of "personnel management" are:
In Indonesia, supervisors had been trained in the systematic abuse of women workers using the Indonesian equivalent of phrases such as "Fuck you!" and "Move you stupid bitch!"
Forms of punishment in Vietnam includes forcing workers to stand in the sun (sun-drying), kneel on the floor with hands up in the air, and write down their mistakes over and over again like parochial school children, as well as cleaning the toilet and sweep factory floors. In November 1996, 100 workers at the Pouchen factory were forced to stand in the sun for an hour because one worker had spilled a tray of fruit on an altar.
On International Women's Day in Vietnam, 56 women were sent outside to run around the factory grounds, a distance of 4 kilometers. 12 of them fainted and were taken to the hospital by their friends. Their offense? A few of them had worn outdoor shoes inside the factory.
Women workers have complained about frequent sexual harassment from foreign supervisors. Even in broad daylight, in front of other workers, these supervisors try to touch, rub or grab their buttocks or chests. One supervisor told a female factory worker that it is a common custom for men in his country to greet women they like by grabbing their behinds.
Almost all the workers interviewed said that they had lost weight since working at Nike factories. They complained of poor nutrition, frequent headaches and general fatigue.
Perhaps the title of the Indonesian report by Perth academic Mr. Peter Hancock says it all: "Nike's Satanic Factories in West Java". The workers are referred to as "Walking Ghosts".
"It's the most disturbing report we've seen so far," Community Aid Abroad spokesperson Tim Connor said of working conditions in Nike-producing factories in Banjaran. He later added, "It seems the less likely it is that researchers will visit, the less concern Nike and its contractors pay to human rights."
Nike and its Indonesian licensee have consistently denied allegations of worker exploitation across Asia. The company argues it is not directly responsible for the licensee factories. However, Mr. Hancock rejected Nike's assertion, reporting that two US Nike representatives worked on the factory floor.
Quite simply, at best, Nike is guilty of "looking the other way", though the evidence is there that they are in fact organizing these factories with inhumane principles. In any case, Nike has the upper hand; the contractors need Nike's business, and would cave in quickly if Nike adopted a zero-tolerance attitude to worker abuse. As Thuyen Nguyen points out, "Nike has a good code of conduct; if it wanted to, the company could enforce that code. It could set up an independent monitoring board to help Nike monitor conditions more closely, to get better information and to provide the workers a trusted neutral party. Nike could give its contracts to factories that provide better working conditions.. It could insist on contract provisions to allow for monetary fines each time a code violation occurs. Nike could hold upper management accountable for the behavior of lower level managers. Nike can no longer insist that each incident of abuse is an isolated incident, that each underpayment of workers is a simple miscalculation. Rather than trying to avoid blame for them, Nike should admit to its responsibility. "
Most Nike workers are young women from poor rural areas of these countries, lands ravaged and pillaged by totalitarian governments financed and created by the Eastern and Western Bloc powerhouses of the cold war. Though Vietnam is allegedly a "communist" country, and Indonesia a "right-wing dictatorship", the leaders of both places are identical in their contempt for their citizens, their history of bloody genocide, and their gleeful rush to profit handsomely due to korporate sweetheart deals at the expense of everyone else. These deals represent the worst of the diabolical "New World Order": massive layoffs in post-industrial countries unable to compete with near slave-labor in impoverished nations exploited by rich and powerful multi-national korporations.
Nike has the means to improve working conditions for ALL its overseas workers. It is not a fledgling company struggling to stay in business. Nike has posted record profits for the past several years.
Which is where its CEO, Mr. Phil Knight, comes in to the picture. He is the sixth richest man in America. Maybe he really isn't aware how bloody his money is. That hardly makes it any more excusable. Kathie Lee Gifford was gleefully attacked by the korporate media when it was discovered her clothing line was being manufactured at sweatshops. That they remain silent over the shocking facts behind Mr. Knight's multi-billionaire empire says volumes.
It is time for someone to be held responsible for these "Satanic factories". And so, The Konformist has gone straight to the top. The Konformist would prefer not to do this: after all, Nike could be a nice future source for advertising revenue, and, let's face it, they DO make great shoes. But enough is enough. The total costs for all these proposed reforms is less than they spend on Michael Jordan. Apparently, pampering their commercial icons that whip consumers into a frenzy to buy the shoes (a frenzy that often turns into inner city violence) is of lesser importance than treating workers fair. And Jordan, Tiger, Pete, and Andre, be warned: though the finger pointing starts at the top, the public may soon turn against you for your silence on the horrible work standards behind the products you endorse.
In any case, we salute you, Phil Knight, as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Phil!!!
Some people and groups to contact:
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Washington, DC 20003
c/o UW Greens
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Madison, WI 53703
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Los Angeles, California 90024-0825
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