Nike sweatshops

Since the 1970s, Nike, Inc. has been accused of using sweatshops to produce footwear and apparel. It was built on the business model of finding the lowest cost of labour possible which led to child labour and exploitation.[1] However it wasn't until 1991, when Jeff Ballinger published a report detailing their insufficient payment of workers and the poor conditions in factories, that these sweatshops came under fire.[2] Nike received huge media attention causing immense problems for the business.[3]

Forced labour has changed the public/consumer's perception of the brand, and has decreased sales. This has meant Nike has had to re-analyse the business, and focus on the ethics of their workers, rather than continuing to promote the competitive nature of their model.[4] [5]

Nike has strongly denied the claims in the past, suggesting the company has little control over sub-contracted factories. Beginning in 2002, Nike began auditing its factories for occupational health and safety.


Understanding the working conditions and emotional impact from the perspective of the workers is crucial in order to understand the true nature of these sweatshops.[2]

Even though Nike has changed its approach in recent years e.g. increasing the minimum wage, arguably this is to protect its reputation rather than to improve the lives of workers.[2] The 'It's a Start' movement says that Nike still needs to improve.[2]

Nike: the business model and timelineEdit

Nike in Washington, Tyne and Wear, UK in the 1970s or early 1980s

Nike has been accused of using sweatshops since the early 1970s, when it produced goods in South Korea, Mainland China, and Taiwan. As these areas' economies developed, workers became more productive, wages rose, and many moved on to higher paying jobs. This led to fewer workers meaning Nike had to open additional sweatshops in lower income economic countries.[4]

Throughout the 1990s, Nike was criticised for selling goods produced in sweatshops. They originally denied claims against them. However, in 2001, Nike director Todd McKean stated in an interview that the "initial attitude was, 'Hey, we don't own the factories. We don't control what goes on there.' Quite frankly, that was a sort of irresponsible way to approach this. We had people there every day looking at quality. Clearly, we had leverage and responsibility with certain parts of the business, so why not others?"[6] In 2005, protesters at over 40 universities demanded that their institutions endorse companies who use "sweat-free" labor. Many anti-sweatshop groups were student-led, such as the United Students Against Sweatshops. At Brown University, Nike went so far as to pull out from a contract with the women’s ice hockey team because of efforts by a student activist group that wanted a code of conduct put in place by the company.[7]

Team Sweat is one of the largest groups that specifically tracks and protests about Nike. Team Sweat is "an international coalition of consumers, investors, and workers committed to ending the injustices in Nike’s sweatshops around the world" founded in 2000 by Jim Keady. While Keady was conducting his research about Nike at St. John’s University, the school signed a $3.5 million deal with Nike, forcing all athletes and coaches to endorse Nike. Keady publicly refused to support Nike and was forced to resign his position as soccer coach in 1998. Since resigning, Keady has done original research into the conditions in Nike's Sweatshops. He travelled to Indonesia and for a month lived among the Nike factory workers, surviving on $1.25 per day as the workers do.[8]

In 2016, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and Fair Labor Association (FLA) issued reports on working conditions at the Hansae Vietnam factory complex. The reports detailed various violations of labor standards.[9] In response, students at Georgetown University held a sit-in in December to protest their school's contract with Nike. The university allowed the contract to expire. In July 2017, USAS organized a Global Day of Action Against Nike on which protests were held at numerous Nike stores.[10][11] In August, Nike reached a new agreement with Georgetown University which granted the WRC full access to Nike's factories.[12]

In 2019, Nike received the worst rating inTailored Wages UK report, published by The Clean Clothes Campaign. The report stated: "The brand can show no evidence of a Living Wage being paid to any workers". Moreover, in 2020, the Washington Post reported that Nike purchases from a factory that relies on forced labor from Uyghurs.[13]

Factory investigationsEdit

Advocacy groups engaged in looking at the conditions of the factories in which Nike, Inc. products are made as a way to understand the problems more fully. Throughout the 1990s, Nike experienced rapid growth after they moved their primary branches of production overseas.[14] Record-breaking profits were reported and the number of factories increased to fulfill the consumers’ demand for Nike products. The employees were commonly the poor inhabitants of the area surrounding the factory looking for any sort of income. The heads of the factories were Nike contractors who often lived in United States or Europe and did not have any sort of relations with their employees. The duty of supervision was given to an upper-level factory worker. The authority of the supervisor included enforcing rules the workers must follow and making sure that they were performing to optimal standards.[15]

The findings of factory investigations show that the supervisor often oversteps their duties. The laws protecting the workers are ignored in favor of cutting costs and lowering health standards. This is possibly because political leaders are paid off by factory supervisors in order to limit governmental interference. The leaders relayed messages to military and police units to overlook the conditions in factories so that the illegal environment could remain open and functioning. They also were warned to watch for signs of labor activism near the factories to prevent workers from aligning with one another for better conditions.[16]

Women represent a large proportion of factory employees. Approximately 75 to 80% of workers are women and a majority of those are in their teens or early twenties.[17] Factory jobs may require women to work long hours, ranging from nine to fourteen hours per day, six days a week. They are severely limited in the amount of time they can take off and are forced to work overtime on several occasions during the week.[17] Although there are more women employed at the factories, they represent the minority in the higher paid supervisor positions.

Advocacy effortsEdit

The goals of transnational advocacy groups working on behalf of Nike factory workers are to allow workers to obtain higher wages, improve the working conditions of the factories, enable them to organize, and gain the respect of their employers.[18] Global efforts have increased the information being spread about Nike sweatshop conditions. Countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Belgium, where no Nike factories exist, have branches of organizations that work to better factory conditions. In countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, and Cambodia, where factories are common, non-governmental organizations push anti-Nike efforts by informing the public through the media of the work environment within the plants.[18] Several well-known advocacy groups are the Global Exchange (United States), Christian Aid (United Kingdom), The Ethical Shopper (New Zealand), and the Clean Clothes Campaign (Europe).[14]

There are several types of advocacy groups, ranging from human rights organizations, to religious groups, to labor associations.[18] Advocacy groups function through donations, fundraising, and in some cases governmental funding.[18] A majority of them create informational hand-outs that they distribute to citizens through the mail or at events. There has been a rapid increase in the use of the Internet as a means of distributing information between advocacy groups. The spread of news across national boundaries allows the groups to mobilize and unify campaigns.[19]

The main focus of political efforts within the countries that house the factories is an increase in the minimum wage for workers.[18] In Indonesia, other legislative efforts included limits on the number of hours a person can work per day, mandated rest periods, minimum age requirements, and a maternity leave for women.[20] Restrictions on labor activism and labor unions limits the amount of unification workers can develop within the factories. When laws in Indonesia were lifted in the late 1980s, factory workers and non-governmental organizations staged many strikes at Nike factories protesting the poor working conditions.[18] The organizations also worked with international allies such as the United States to bring about awareness in foreign, and often wealthier, countries. These allies provided aide for the workers who were not paid while on strike.[18] The non-governmental organizations within the country have less of an impact on their government’s view of the protest, but the groups outside of the country have a stronger political pull because of their wealth.


William Stepp, of the libertarian Mises Institute, argues that minimum wage is arbitrary and causes unemployment. Stepp claims that the workers were not exploited and clearly received benefits from working at the factories "by showing up for work every day, and by accepting a paycheck based on mutually-agreed-upon terms." Other benefits include free annual physicals, uniforms and clothing, a clinic and health service, a canteen stocked with food, recreation and entertainment, and transportation. However, Stepp criticized Nike for its association with the World Bank, which says is the real exploiter of third world countries.[21]

A study by the Nike-founded Global Alliance for Workers and Communities found that 70% of Nike factory workers in Thailand rated their supervisors as good and 72% thought their income was fair. In Vietnam, most workers "thought the factory was a 'good place to work' and planned to continue at least three years," and 85% of those polled felt safe there. Further, they felt that the factory offered a more stable career and higher income than farmwork.[21]

The addition of factories to poor Asian countries has allowed them to increase their revenue by providing jobs to previously unemployed groups of citizens. People commonly move to areas where they know a factory is going to be built in order to earn even a low income. Migrant workers frequently send their wages back to their families in their home country.[19] These employees are willing to do work that citizens of first world countries are not, especially for low wages. Since most of the economies of the small, poor countries were centred around their market system, the introduction of large factories owned by a wealthy corporation greatly increased their flow of money.[22]

Nike responseEdit

Nike began to monitor working conditions in factories that produce their products.[23] During the 1990s, Nike installed a code of conduct for their factories. This code is called SHAPE: Safety, Health, Attitude, People, and Environment.[18] The company spends around $10 million a year to follow the code, adhering to regulations for fire safety, air quality, minimum wage, and overtime limits. In 1998, Nike introduced a program to replace its petroleum-based solvents with less dangerous water-based solvents.[24] A year later, an independent expert[who?] stated that Nike had, "substituted less harmful chemicals in its production, installed local exhaust ventilation systems, and trained key personnel on occupational health and safety issues."[25] The study was conducted in a factory in Vietnam.

Nike created a non-governmental organization called the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities that became aligned with several other groups including the International Youth Foundation. The organization releases reports about the corporation and its plans to improve current conditions. The Global Alliance received backlash in 2001 when a report about the Nike Inc. did not include recent events such as strikes, worker terminations, and the lack of collective bargaining in their Indonesian factories.[20]

Between 2002 and 2004, Nike audited its factories approximately 600 times, giving each factory a score on a scale of 1 to 100, which is then associated with a letter grade. Most factories received a "B", indicating some problems, or a "C", indicating that serious problems are not being resolved quickly enough. If a factory receives a "D", Nike threatens to stop producing in that factory unless the conditions are rapidly improved. Nike had plans to expand their monitoring process to include environmental and health issues beginning in 2004.[23]

Nike has allowed human rights groups and organisations to come into factories and inspect the working conditions, wages and speak personally with the workers.[3]

Consumer reactionEdit

Several universities, unified by the Worker Rights Consortium, organized a national hunger strike in protest of their school using Nike products for athletics. Feminist groups mobilized boycotts of Nike products after learning of the unfair conditions for the primarily female workers. In the early 1990s, when Nike began a push to increase advertising for female athletic gear, these groups created a campaign called "Just Don’t Do It" to bring attention to the poor factory conditions where women create Nike products.[18]

Social media platforms have allowed for the rapid spread of information about factory conditions. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter have allowed people from distant countries to share their ideas and collaborate with each other. Advocacy groups commonly use social media sites to post about upcoming events and to keep members informed about the activities of the group.[19] In a Vietnamese Nike factory, a worker accused his employer of striking him. After contacting a factory advocate, the worker was interviewed by a news station. The video eventually reached an ESPN affiliate in Vietnam, where it was viewed by millions of people before officials in the United States had formally heard of the incident.[20]

Other controversiesEdit

In 2000, Nike chairman Phil Knight planned to donate $30 million to his alma mater, the University of Oregon. When the University of Oregon joined the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), Knight revoked his donation because the WRC has been blocked by Nike from inspecting its factories. The Fair Labor Association (which was co-founded by Nike in 1980s) is supported by Nike and the United States government, while the Workers Rights Consortium is not.[26] There has been debate between the university and Knight about the legitimacy of the FLA and which labor monitoring organization is more effective.

Another dispute arose from Nike’s personalization system, NIKEiD. MIT graduate Jonah Peretti attempted to order a pair of shoes from Nike. He chose to have the word “sweatshop” embroidered on them. Nike sent Peretti an email explaining that his personalization request could not be granted for one of four things: it contained another party's trademark or other intellectual property, the name of an athlete or team Nike does not have legal right to use, profanity or inappropriate slang, or was left blank. Peretti replied, expressing to Nike that his personalization did not contain content violating the aforementioned criteria. Nike responded by allowing Peretti to alter his personalization and Peretti chose not to change it and cancelled the order.[27] According to the Mises Institute, the publicity led to Nike selling more of the personalized shoes.[21]


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