More Nike Lies and Half-Truths

This writer has often related to you the horrifying conditions and the slave wages that Nike pays its overseas workers and about the obscene profits that Nike founder Phil Knight rakes in because of that. Well, it seems that Nike isn't above some judicious lying in hopes of improving its truly tarnished image in the eyes of the very few who actually care about such things.

Ignoring conditions and paltry pay in all of their other Asian factories, Nike increased the salaries of their Indonesian factory workers by a massive 6% or 256,000 rupiahs per month, declaring that this raise brought the workers up to a living wage. But wait, isn't that a rather large increase? Shouldn't I be praising Nike instead of complaining about their PR efforts?

Of course I'm on the correct course in damning their childish pranks, as you already knew. If one converts that princely sum into American dollars you see that each and every worker is now finding an extra $6.07 a week in their pay envelopes or, to look at it another way, a huge raise of a bit more than $315 a year or just enough to buy three of Nike's least expensive shoes.

Now, according to Global Exchange, once one of Nike's major critics but now apparently just another of Nike's unthinking admirers, this raise shows just how dedicated Nike is to the fair treatment of its workers. Whether this could support a family is doubtful but Global Exchange spokesman Jason Marks simply explained that it might be enough if the worker was a single woman. When pressed for more information, Marks did admit that older workers and family bread winners could possibly need more.

This lukewarm praise from Global Exchange is in direct opposition to the statement last May to the New York Times by the group's executive director who flatly stated, "a sweatshop is a sweatshop is a sweatshop unless you pay a living wage. That would be $3 a day."

This miniscule raise is being eaten away by the raging inflation that Indonesia has felt since the fall of the dictator Suharto and has made the wages worth less than 70% of its paltry worth last year. Nike has benefited greatly by this inflation, though. Their costs has dropped by the same 70% and resulted in a third quarter profit of $124 million. Since the total cost to produce each shoe is about $1.20 and the shoes sell for over $90, the tiny raise hardly registers on the company's profit and loss statements.

Nike has learned the lessons of political duplicity well, having been taught by one Maria Eitel, once a Bush Administration press official and one time Microsoft executive who has convinced many critics of Nike that some vaporous "cultural schism" has developed in Nike that is pushing the corporation toward a more caring effort in regards to its poorest employees. This lie was exposed early this year when a Nike manager warned other factories of the dangers of attempting to duplicate the increased wages in Indonesia. "There's a concern what that would do to the market, whether or not Indonesia could be pricing itself out of the market." So said Nike's James Small.

Could it be that Nike truly cannot afford to pay its workers any more? Well, consider the fact that Nike recently paid $200 million dollars to the Brazilian soccer team to endorse their products and are paying American athletes hundreds of millions more (and ex-jock Michael Jordan more than $100,000 PER DAY!) just to wear their brand and to appear in a few commercials.

Nike even tries to undercut any efforts towards justice and encourages the countries in which they have factories to punish the citizens who strive to form labor unions or just to improve conditions for their nation's workforce. Nike's Vice-President Joseph Ha went so far as to single out Thuyen Nguyen, leader of the Vietnam Labor Watch, warning the Vietnamese authorities that Nguyen and his group "are not friends of Vietnam".

Overall, Nike refuses to allow any human rights workers into any of its factories, refusing to even state exactly where their factories even are located, firing any employee who speaks of working for them since that may allow critics an idea of the location of that plant. Additionally, the corporation refuses to pay back wages to 24 Indonesian employees that they fired after leading a demonstration against the brutal labor practices Nike endorses in its Indonesia factories. The Indonesian Supreme Court stated quite clearly that the firings were illegal and ordered that all 24 be paid five years worth of wages. Nike has so far paid them only 10% of what they owe, refusing to return to court to answer as to why. (1)

Even President Clinton played a part in Nike's misleading PR game. Just about two years ago, he and Nike CEO Knight made a big deal out of the creation of the Apparel Industry Partnership, a group whose sole purpose was to bring together industry, labor, human watchdog groups and religious organization to deal with these overseas issues. The reward for the apparel industry is the right to add a "Sweat Free" label to their products, a label meant to appease the many vocal critics of sweatshop produced clothing and shoes (i.e., Kathy Lee Gifford's very public ridicule when it was exposed that all of her line of Wal-Mart clothing was being produced by Haitian workers as young as six and vastly underpaid workers in New York City's Chinatown).

The group charged with creating the rules that a company must meet in order to gain the "right to the Sweat Free label didn't last long, of course, as everyone but the corporate representatives found the insane rules that were being coerced onto the group by the CEOs and their lawyers only hid the abuses behind misleading and outright falsification of facts. The issue of living wages were kept off the table completely. Any knowledge of the working conditions in the factories was effectively blocked through rules which allowed only 5% of any corporation's factories to be inspected in any year as well as allowing the corporation to determine which are inspected and who the inspectors will be. Even the locations of the factories will continue, in Nike's case, to be kept secret and the results of the inspections will not be shared with any human rights groups or news media but will be shared only between the inspector and the factory owners.

The final agreement was brought out on November 2 last year, the day before the election, which wasn't just a coincidence. The agreement was so watered down and weak that Clinton and the industry leaders asked the lobbying group charged with producing and promoting the accord to wait until that day as they knew it would be buried under election coverage, guarding them against the certain embarrassment should anyone in the media truly read the agreement.

Sadly, many Americans will be fooled with even this weak enforcement since any company which has just one of its factories certified "Sweat Free" can still abuse their workers in the remaining 99% of their sweatshops. (2)

So, gentle readers, what have we learned from this? First, Nike has a terrible history of abusing and, sometimes, killing their workers through chemical exposure and overwork and, if need be, through quietly asking their host governments to silence local critics in whatever the accepted means may be (meaning "disappearing" or beatings or, in most of the dictatorial nations in which Nike owns plants, outright murder). Second, the label is completely worthless in that even the few plants which will be inspected will undoubtedly have all in order just for the short time that the inspectors are near and will happily return to abusing their employees as soon as possible after they leave. Finally, we learn what we already knew and that is the fact that Corporate America can always be counted on to behave in the most offensive, sickening and mean spirited manner knowing that they can get away with it in their constant and sick pursuit of profits before decency.

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Copyright 5/27/99