Nike’s Crimes

When you’re called to testify before Congress, and you’ve already decided to avoid responsibility or culpability, the standard routine is to resort to amnesia.  You know nothing and you remember nothing.  Again and again, you lean into the microphone and intone somberly, “Not to my recollection, Senator.”

But when you’re a manufacturer of sports apparel, like Nike, Inc., who hasn’t produced an athletic shoe in the United States since 1984, and has long been accused by labor and humanitarian organizations of exploiting the workers of Third World countries, you can’t defend yourself by pretending not to remember.

Instead, you’re forced to use that other reliable excuse:  ignorance.  You build a wall between yourself and the guilty parties.  You blame your subcontractors for the shameful policies—i.e., poverty wages, child labor, quasi-slave labor, sweatshop conditions, physical and sexual abuse of workers.  Were any Nike management personnel aware of these abuses?  “Not to my knowledge, Senator.”

On April 9, the University of Wisconsin became the first college to cancel its product licensing agreement with Nike in response to the company’s treatment of factory workers in Honduras.  The Hondurans claim that when Nike suddenly shut down two manufacturing plants in Choloma and San Pedro Sula, in January of 2009, the employees were denied severance pay totaling more than $2.5 million.

Predictably, Nike professed ignorance of the whole thing, claiming this was a matter between the Honduran workers and Nike’s subcontractors.  To its credit, the University of Wisconsin (which, in 2009, earned $48,000 in Nike royalties)  wasn’t buying it.  Not this time.  The university had simply lost patience with the company’s tired, old, pass-the-buck tactics.

By now most people are familiar with Nike’s glitzy corporate history.  They burst upon the scene, then left the country.  When Nike shuttered its last shoe factory in the U.S., more than a quarter-century ago, it was estimated that 65,000 American shoe workers had lost their jobs.  Worse of course, was the domino effect it had on the economy.

When you relocate your entire manufacturing base to the Third World, you not only cause your own employees to lose their jobs, but you start the dime rolling; you induce your competitors (Reebok, Adidas, Puma, etc) to move their facilities as well, as they seek to compete with the near slave-wages you’re now paying your new employees.

By the time the smoke settles, you have what we have today:  $100 shoes being assembled by Vietnamese children making 20-cents an hour….literally.

How predatory is Nike?  It has actually moved out of places like South Korea and Taiwan because workers in those countries demanded higher than poverty-level wages, and relocated to places like Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan and Indonesia. Presumably, when the Vietnamese demand a living wage, Nike will court Sudan and the Congo.

Even if you take the position that Nike is, ostensibly, no worse than any other shoe manufacturer when it comes to trolling for poverty wages, you have to admit that its Chairman of the Board, Phil Knight, is a supreme hypocrite.

Vehemently anti-labor union, Knight nonetheless tries to come off as this above-the-fray enlightened philanthropist/humanitarian.  He does charity work; he gives money to colleges.  But in truth, Knight is as hard-bitten a businessman as any sweatshop foreman.  The only difference is image.

And image is everything to Nike.  The company spends an estimated $280 million a year on celebrity endorsements, including those of superstars Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.  It’s no exaggeration to say that Knight, the “humanitarian,” could feed and clothe all the children of an African city for less than he’s paying Jordan for one year.

If we argue that it’s a bogus comparison, that it’s not his job to be anyone’s keeper—much less a bunch of African kids—that’s fine.  But let’s also acknowledge that Knight is a money-grubbing shoemaker who made his fortune off the backs of quasi-slave laborers.  On Wisconsin!




David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at