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NIKE Supports Women Consumers But Not Workers, Say Groups

by Danielle Knight

Sweatshop Index

Nike workers in Vietnam can barely afford three meals a day
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Nike came under fire last year for an advertising campaign intended to link women's participation in sports to their broader empowerment.

The advertisements depict positive images of women but a coalition of women's groups charge Nike is seeking to promote its image as a champion of women's rights while mistreating its Asian factory workers -- most of whom are young women.

"While the women who wear Nike shoes in the United States are encouraged to perform their personal best, the Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Chinese women making the shoes often suffer from inadequate wages, corporal punishment, forced overtime, and sexual harassment," the groups, including Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women (NOW), said a protest letter to Nike chairman Phillip Knight.

The letter, also signed by Pulitzer prize-winning author Alice Walker and Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, the letter highlights the plight of Nike workers in Vietnam who can "barely afford three meals a day let alone transportation, rent, clothing, health care."

The ads showed women saying they will be stronger, healthier and more independent if allowed to play sports
The groups are calling on Nike to let local independent monitors inspect factories in Asia, where there have been reports workers were physically abused, and to increase pay. In the case of Vietnam, they want workers' pay raised from $1.60 per day to three dollars.

The company, in a written response to its critics, says, "Nike's message of providing opportunity and empowering women to excel is a commitment, demonstrated each and every day for the past 25 years, by the way Nike conducts its business, treats its workers, and leads the industry by its example in worker initiatives."

The advertisements, unveiled during the last autumn's U.S. Women's Open tennis tournament, showed women from the United States saying they will be stronger, healthier and more independent if they are allowed to play sports.

In one television spot, a flashing montage of women and girls sweating on the playing field is accompanied by a woman's voice announcing, "If you let me play sports, I will like myself more, I'll be more likely to leave a man who beats me, I'll be less likely to get pregnant before I want to."

"The message in the empowerment ad is strong, but there's a disconnect between that message and the way Nike pays and treats its workers, especially its women workers," said Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority. "It is incumbent on us to fight the sweatshops just like the feminists in the United States did at the turn of the century."

Nike is not the first corporation seen to exploit the women's rights movement for a profit at the expense of women, noted Elizabeth Toledo, a vice president of NOW. "Philip Morris uses Virginia Slims ads to sell the idea that liberated women should be smoking while hundreds of thousands of women die of cigarette related diseases," she told IPS.

The coalition picked Nike because of its prominence. "Nike has the tremendous capability and power to create a standard for others to follow," Toledo explained. "But our campaign clearly won't end with targeting just Nike."

Nike spokeswoman Catherine Reith says the company pays its workers more than the local minimum wage, and that the supervisors responsible for physical abuse, reported years ago, have since been fired.

The company also points to a recent Dartmouth College business school study which concluded that workers at Nike factories in Indonesia and Vietnam earned enough to meet their basic needs, with money left over for discretionary spending or savings.

"The job opportunities that we have provided to women and men in developing countries like Vietnam and Indonesia have provided a bridge of opportunity for these individuals to have a much better quality of life," added Vada Manager, a Nike spokesman.

Human rights activists question such assertions. "Nike has refused to allow access to the Dartmouth study," said Kimberly Miyoshi, corporate accountability director at the human rights organization Global Exchange. "There is no way to discuss the validity of the study without seeing the actual information," she noted.

Thuyen Nguyen of the New York-based Vietnam Labor Watch added, "Nike has been refusing to sign a living wage provision as proposed by President Clinton's Apparel Industry Partnership, while they are telling people they pay above a living wage."

Women's groups are seeking to educate consumers about the abuses behind the shoes
Just 10 percent of Nike's annual billion-dollar advertising budget would lift the company's subcontracted workers' wages to a livable level, according to Smeal. "The treatment and pay of women workers in Southeast Asia must be higher on Nike's priority list," she argued.

Women's groups also are seeking to educate consumers about what they describe as the abuses behind the shoes.

"Like the economy is global, the women's movement is global. Women in the United States must leverage our consumer power for these exploited women. We cannot tolerate inhumane wages or sexual harassment in the United States or abroad," Smeal declared.

As the women's groups mobilize, Reps. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, and Marcy Kaptur (D - Ohio), also are circulating a letter to colleagues in Congress, urging a dialogue with Nike on how the company can "move forward to treat its Third World workers with respect, dignity, and decent wages."

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Albion Monitor April 22, 1998 (

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