NIKE Sued For Allegedly Lying to Public About Sweatshops

Monitor Wire Services

Sweatshop Index

The suit alleges that workers are subject to punishment and sexual abuse
Lawyers have filed a civil suit charging Nike Inc with lying about sweatshop conditions in Asian factories where its world-famous shoes are pieced together.

The suit, filed in San Francisco superior court April 20, accused Nike of violating California's consumer laws by willfully misleading the public about working conditions for the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Chinese and Indonesian laborers who produce the footwear with its distinctive "Swoosh" logo.

"We feel that Nike has one of the worst track records," said Patrick Coughlin, one of the lawyers on the suit. "The conditions are just horrendous."

The suit alleges that, contrary to statements by Nike, Asian "sweatshop" workers are regularly subject to physical punishment and sexual abuse.

It says Nike factory workers are often exposed to dangerous chemicals, forced to work overtime, sometimes without pay, and often unable to earn a "living wage" despite workdays that can be 14 hours long.

"Nike has failed to tell Californians the truth about their business practices," said Alan Caplan, another lawyer in the group. "They are using deception for profit."

In a statement responding to the suit, Nike said it was committed to the health, safety and wage levels of its workers and sought to make its factories "the very best workplaces."

The company said the legal action "appears to be more of a press release dressed up like a lawsuit" that merely recycled old claims that have already been resolved.

"Nike has always sought to conduct its business practices in an ethical and commercially responsible manner. This legal action will not deter us from our mission of continuous improvement," the statement said.

The suit is the latest attack on Nike for conditions at Asian factories where workers, mostly women between the ages of 18-24, are subcontracted to produce most of its shoes.

Workers smacked with shoe soles for using the wrong color
Nike has repeatedly rejected the accusations that it implicitly condones worker maltreatment, and has published both a "Code of Conduct" and a separate agreement with its Asian subcontractors setting out the company position on wages and working conditions.

The civil suit filed Monday said, however, that despite an aggressive campaign to promote its image as a "model of corporate responsibility," Nike ignores violations of both agreements in factories in Vietnam, Indonesia and China.

It cites a number of alleged incidents, including workers forced to run laps as punishment, workers forced to kneel in front of their supervisors, and workers smacked with shoe soles for using the wrong color in shoe production.

The suit also says workers in some factories are forced to work up to 14 hours per day and receive only two to four days off per month, a violation of both Nike policy and local laws.

The suit cites a 1996 audit report conducted in Vietnam by Ernst & Young at Nike's request, which was turned over to company officials but kept under wraps until it was eventually leaked to the media in November 1997.

It says the report details conditions that left women workers suffering from "desperation, physical exhaustion and pressure to work overtime to meet high production quotas."

In some cases, the suit says, young women are exposed to dangerous chemical solvents like toluene and acetone, highly toxic substances that can cause serious health problems and potentially lead to birth defects.

The lawyers, many of whom worked on an earlier successful suit to force R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to stop using its popular "Joe Camel" advertising campaign, filed the suit on behalf of local activist Marc Kasky, who brought the charges as a representative of the California public.

"We feel that we will win this case, one way or another," Kasky told a news conference.

The suit demands Nike turn over any profits made in violation of California's unfair business practice laws and undertake a "corrective" advertising campaign to explain how its shoes are produced.

"Nike is either going to disclose how they have these people work, or change their conditions," Coughlin said.

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Albion Monitor April 22, 1998 (

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