Regarding Nike: Michael Moore was right. (But it's so much worse.)

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

In his 1997 movie The Big One, Michael Moore challenged Nike CEO Phil Knight to personally tour one of his own Nike factories in Southest Asia. Phil refused.

In 2000, after U of O Students and Faculty demanded that their University require vendors to prove that their products were sweat free. Nike objected and retaliated by "suspending" a planned $30 million dollar gift to the University. University President Dave Frohnmeyer overturned the student and faculty position in support of labor rights, and Nike money again washed over the home of the Ducks.

Last week, a Malaysian Nike plant was found to be in egregious violation of fundamental labor standards. From the O:

Nike plans to investigate all 37 of its contract factories in Malaysia after a television station found that one plant garnisheed wages, housed foreign workers in squalor and withheld their passports.

Australia's Channel 7 said it found "human trafficking on a massive scale" at the T-shirt factory, where foreign workers were paid a pittance to manufacture apparel. The television report last week said workers were housed 26 to a room in filthy conditions, with hundreds of men bathing in a single trough. ...

Channel 7 reported that migrant workers had to pay fees equivalent to a year's wages in their home countries to agents who got them jobs. The factory then held their passports until the workers repaid the fees.

Nike said it would reimburse the fees paid by the workers, return their passports and pay airfare to workers who want to go back to their countries.

"We're very concerned with what we found" during an investigation of the Hytex Group factory, said Erin Dobson, Nike's director of corporate-responsibility communications. "We'll go into every one of those factories in the coming weeks and months."

This is terribly disappointing. And yet, somehow, not exactly surprising.

C'mon, Nike, you're better than this. It shouldn't take an Australian TV show to to do the work you should be doing yourselves. Create a program that aggressively and secretly monitors your own factories.

Just do it.


  • Garrett (unverified)

    Oh please...we all know Nike employees. Everytime I give one of them any flak they pull out the claim, "well the .30 cents an hour we pay them is more than they'll get anywhere else." Pathetic!

  • Sam Geggy (unverified)

    Further on in the story:

    "Nike has contracted with the Hytex factory for 14 years and has had "issues" there before, Dobson said. She said any disciplinary actions for plant managers would be up to Hytex, not Nike.

    'It's our philosophy that you stick with the factory and help them through these issues, because that's where you have influence," Dobson said. "If we were just to cut the factory for these kinds of allegations, we can't make sure that any improvements are made in these workers' lives.'"

    The level of rage reached active levels in the 90's, but, it appears, Nike has little real motivation to be more than minimally active on this front. They could distinguish themselves in a human rights and sensibly responsible corporate citizenship manner if they had the will. My bet is if they engaged in proactively guaranteeing sweat-free products with robust dialog as opposed to an expectation of perfection, the students and the rest of the concerned world would engage the process and be glad of it. Think Truth and Reconciliation, if you will. A new Best Practices that engages human rights and world citizenship without the same level of compromised ethics. Restore the word, "Compromise" to its more positive meaning.

  • Doug (unverified)

    I am not one to normally defend corporate behavior but Nike has been at the forefront of corporate citizenship since the late 1990's. They spend millions every year on an extensive monitoring program that has been copied by other companies (to the scorn of many corporations that don't want to be pressured to do the same). It is never right for this type of behavior to happen in a factory, but it is almost impossible to know what is going all of the time in these factories (not to mention the managers of these factories go out of their way to try to avoid detection of abuses). I am sure the CSR department will try to figure out how this behavior went unnoticed, but I urge you to not be so quick to tear apart the company's CSR initiatives. One abuse is one too many, but in a worldwide economy where 99.9% of companies do nothing to protect workers in third-world countries (especially the apparel industry), Nike gets a bad rap from many because of that unfortunate interview that Phil Knight did in the 1990s. I do not work for Nike nor have family that work for Nike and I have nothing personally invested in the company.

  • (Show?)

    did this post have an author?

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    Interesting that this critique of Nike is one of the few posts that is totally anonymous.

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    Ack... That's fixed. Posted by me. Hit publish and then ran off to do an errand. Grr.

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    They spend millions every year on an extensive monitoring program


    So explain to me how an Australian TV show managed to uncover the situation but it went undetected by Nike.

    One abuse is one too many....

    Did you even read the article above? I'll highlight two phrases for you:

    Australia's Channel 7 said it found "human trafficking on a massive scale" at the T-shirt factory, where foreign workers were paid a pittance to manufacture apparel. The television report last week said workers were housed 26 to a room in filthy conditions, with hundreds of men bathing in a single trough.

    Now don't get me wrong. I'm a HUGE fan of Nike. I believe in the company. I think their products are great. I have many, many friends that work there.

    But this is gross. It needs to be fixed. Given all the lavishing of self-praise, it was easy to believe Nike that they were leading the industry.

    (And maybe they are. Which doesn't make this story any more acceptable.)

  • James Mattiace (unverified)

    Yes, I remember when Nike was a favorite target for sweatshop abuses, and I also remember the backlash from the athletics crowd as they got tired (and rightfully so) of their boy becoming the poster child for sweatshops. I also remember Nike finally beginning to get the message and fix some of the problems. (probably due to being the posterchild)

    But I ALSO remember that Nike refused to allow an independent monitoring program and instead opted for a program that only monitors 10% of their factories AND alerts the factories before they make site visits.

    And I ALSO remember that Nike and cronies got the State Board of Higher Ed to enact a policy that no University purchasing agreements could be predicated on any human rights standards, thereby effectively cutting the legs out of any campus based movements.

    So, while Nike gets credit for improvement and gets a pass for not being able to be omniscient, they get a big thumbs down for rigging the system in their favor in the 1st place.

    On a personal note, Nike's little Board of Ed move was one of the pushes that got me less interested in working in Int'l politics and more interested in state politics. That and a girlfriend who was national field director for ACORN. And of course, The Bus Project sealed the deal.

    James Mattiace Ironicly overseas in Morocco

  • Leslie (unverified)

    There is no excuse for anyone not knowing what is going on in their own factory. They know what their payroll costs. They knew about this and got caught period. Saying one is ignorant to how workers in one's own factory are being treated is the same as saying you didn't know your children were freezing. You can't conduct business and not know what your labor costs. This man should not be given an out by saying ...Oh golly gee, I had no idea. Pleeeeeease. This man should be thrown and jail. Anyone willing to accept this ridiculously lame answer of his not knowing is just making it allowable for him and others to do this and continue until they are caught. Oh gee officer, I didn't know I was drinking alcohol, I thought it was grape juice. Do you think it would work for you? I've always boycotted Nike and will continue to do so.

  • Joel H (unverified)

    Leslie: It's not Nike's own factory, it's a third-party factory -- I assume, Malaysian-owned. Nike doesn't have their own management there or control the payroll. They just send out designs and cash and get T-shirts back. Who really knows how much oversight they have?

    What country are these "foreign workers" from? Indonesia, I guess? Why isn't their government doing anything about this fraudulent hiring which as described basically amounts to kidnapping? Nike isn't the only bad guy here.

  • Joel H (unverified)

    It seems the workers are from all over SE Asia. You would think Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. would be very interested in shutting down this activity if only because it would make their own countries more competitive.

    "It's our philosophy that you stick with the factory and help them through these issues, because that's where you have influence," Dobson [Nike spokesperson] said. "If we were just to cut the factory for these kinds of allegations, we can't make sure that any improvements are made in these workers' lives."

    You could certainly interpret this cynically, but if you take it at face value it's a good sign. She's claiming that Nike intends to establish a presence at these factories to enforce labor standards of some sort. Is she lying?

  • Anonymous (unverified)

    Sorry to have to say this: we were once one of the suppliers of Myanmar workers back in 1999... to this Hytex Garment (Apperal), owned and operated by the SAW family. We had tempted to report some RIGHTS violations to the Nike head office, but retracted ourselves as we saw useless for our effort. We had to collect fees (commissions) in advance for this SAW family in order for the workers to work for them. Once we refused to pay them fees for some workers who decided not to go there (Hytex), they turned around and would not take the remaining workers with visas already obtained. A very nasty family operating a real sweat factory, to where I had visited at least (3) times back in 1999 and 2000. Again, sorry for not being able to initiate it then.

  • Micusa (unverified)

    Yeah, it just reminds me at the end of World War 2 when the "good Germans", really decent people like you, me, Dobson, and her boss, were swearing God that they did not know about the labor camps run by the Nazis. You know, they needed cheap labor to be able to run the Great Third Reich, and as long the German industrial system could keep working, it was fine...and by the way, there was a sign on the front door of these camps that indicated "working makes you free"...

  • george (unverified)

    thats it for me. no more NIKE for me or my family !!!

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    Nike. Beaverton, Oregon. Well...not really.

    Our bold, ever-vigilent state legislature gives Nike immunity from annexation. And Nike contributions flood the donor boxes, not to mention the campaign coffers, of way too many.

    Who takes their money? Can we see a show of hands?

  • Rob (unverified)

    I have not purchased a Nike product in over 15 years and I will not allow Nike products in my home. Everyone shoud wake up and boycott the sobs.

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    Every one of us has a part in this mess. I have never worn Nike anything in my life, but I do wear clothes and the majority of all apparel sold in the US is made offshore. So is the majority of electronics equipment. And really, out of season food, tools, etcetera.

    If I wear New Balance sneaks, where's the virtue? Nike's a big convenient target and it might be useful to continue focusing our anger re working conditions on them for the theoretical coattail effect, but I'm clear that a lot of my purchases of any kind might easily be traced back to workers laboring and living in appalling squalor.

    There's at least a little hope that Obama will win and we'll revisit some of the worst parts of our trade agreements that have been intstituted in the past 15 years.


    I was talking to a winery owner this weekend about the provenance of his fermenters. He can buy a vat from JV Northwest in Canby for $21,000 or buy a chinese version (of admittedly inferior quality) for $13,000, and spend a grand or two bringing it up to code.

    He doesn't know any more about working conditions or compensation that produces those vats than I do about the people who manfactured my underwear, so maybe it's time to revisit the late '90s when this stuff was higher on the "first world" radar.

  • Grant Schott (unverified)

    I'm so glad you posted this, Kari. It seems like most politicans in OR kiss up to NIKE. That doesn't mean activists should, too. Sadly, this is business as usually for so many corporations. We banned slavery 144 years ago in this country but continue to support it around the planet when we support companies who exploit humans.

  • Harry Kershner (unverified)

    Re: "C'mon, Nike, you're better than this."

    No, you're not, and neither are we.

    "In our society, crimes by leaders are far too common. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as individuals, are guilty of their crime against peace and war crimes in Iraq that have resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands, just as Bill Clinton and Al Gore before them are guilty of the crime against humanity perpetrated through an economic embargo on Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of innocents as well. These men are guilty, beyond any doubt, and they should be held accountable. But would those kinds of crimes be as frequent if the spirit of society were different? For that, we all are responsible." (Robert Jensen, The prophetic challenge: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible”)

  • Erik H. (unverified)

    Nike is the result of years of "economic stimulus" in Oregon - bring in "big name" companies that hire "young, educated, creative types" and provide little manufacturing jobs here in Oregon.

    Meanwhile, we have this urge to support Nike because they are a "hometown" company when they have very little in Oregon (I'd say "Beaverton" but they aren't even in Beaverton city limits.) So thousands of Oregonians gladly pay up for Nike, even if it means a $200 pair of shoes that costs only $15 to manufacture, $20 in naming rights to Michael Jordan, and the rest to support Phil Knight (with some of that trickling down to the University of Oregon's athletic program.)

    Sadly, both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this. The Democrats like to claim that they are bringing good jobs to Oregon when they are importing the workers from somewhere else. The Republicans like it because it supports their business stance. The losers are the majority of Oregonians who simply want a decent job, but the good manufacturing jobs have been scared away over "sportswear" and "green" jobs that are current en vogue. Of course, biotech was cool two years ago until the leaders realized that biotech didn't want to come to Oregon.

  • Susan Shawn (unverified)

    Seems to me that Neil Goldschmidt worked for Nike for awhile, along with a number of his friends and cohorts. Too bad he never spoke out about this, since he would have had first hand knowledge. Of course, the reasons are obvious why he didn't.

    For me personally, I am trying to purchase items made in the USA, union made if possible, and generally stay aware of my "voting" power by what I purchase and what I don't. We will all continue to learn more and become more aware. Thanks for the post, Kari.

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    Great post Kari.

    It is never right for this type of behavior to happen in a factory, but it is almost impossible to know what is going all of the time in these factories (not to mention the managers of these factories go out of their way to try to avoid detection of abuses).

    Which is why trade agreements need to be altered drastically. Personally I would favor ones that are structured around national enforcement of the right to unionize in independent (non-government controlled) unions (along with upgrading our own deficient labor rights system). The problem with standards imposed by outsiders is that they may not reflect the priorities of the workers affected.

    Likewise this would be a way to get at the economic claims. U.S. agreements are usually tied to a local minimum wage, which generally is derisively low. But you will often hear arguments that U.S. companies (or at least those touting some sort of "reform" effort) pay either the going rate or a bit better, and that the workers would not want the factory closed. The latter can be true even if workers are not happy with the wages or working conditions. Free collective bargaining would tend to raise living standards, reflect knowledge about local price systems that can be very different than ours, and make U.S. workers more competitive in the sense that wage differentials would be reduced by international workers lifting themselves up.

    It seems to me that the Board of Higher Ed. policy itself could be the focus of a campaign, if students and other citizens wanted to make it one.

    Nice quote about guilt and responsibility, Harry. I agree with it completely, though I know you don't agree with how I try to act on it. But thanks anyway, it's a useful thought.

  • Grant Schott (unverified)

    Yes, Goldschmidt worked for NIKE in the early 80s before running for Gov. NG never met a corportion he didn't like, especially if they paid him big $$, so doubt if these abuses moved him to tears. Phil Knight was one of NG's biggest, if not the biggest donor in '86.

  • Ron Buel (unverified)

    As a 13-year employee of Nike, and Neil Goldschmidt's first employee when he ran for city council in 1969-70, I have something to say about the posts above.
    I get tired of the self-righteous BS about Nike and, for that matter, about Goldschmidt, who despite his many flaws (and a prolonged, inexcusable mistake), was by far the best mayor, the most accomplished mayor Portland ever had.
    The problem at Nike is its policy of chasing low-wage workers around the globe -- starting in Korea and Taiwan, and as those countries moved into the second world, migrating to many other third-world countries. There's only a buck or two worth of labor in a pair of Nikes, or those of Adidas or Reebok, and the other sports shoe and fitness companies who are serious competitors of Nike. But the other costs -- materials, transportation, warehousing, design and development, etc. just don't get the scrutiny they should, in comparison. It's a mental laziness, inertia to continue successful past practices despite their socio-political ramifications.

    Third world conditions in Asia, South and Central America and Africa are deplorable. People or corporations who take factories there (including Nike) can argue that they are lifting up these economies, providing a route to the second world -- I heard the argument every time the subject came up at Nike. I don't buy it, either. It is not an excuse for the reponsibility of promoting healthy change wherever you are operating, whether you own the factories or not.

    But, we in America, are mightily self-absorbed, and we don't understand our own limits to solve the problems of poverty in the third world. We don't want third-world immigrants, especially those who aren't like us. We don't want to pay the taxes necessary for the kind of education for our own young people that leads to future family-wage jobs in the clean knowledge economy. We are obsessed by our military adventures instead of fixing the real problems. The way our economy is today, the popular, trendy idea for enrichment is making a killing in real estate. Building a sustainable, environmentally-sound, community-based manufacturing economy, not dependent on fossil fuel transportation around the globe, is a worthy endeavour, timely and smart. But it requires some vision and some public-private co-operation that is hard to come by in today's America (or Oregon for that matter).

    Meanwhile, as a former labor organizer, I get tired of the self-righteousness of the self-interested labor unions as they seek to return us to a simpler, bygone time of family-wage American manufacturing jobs and responsible, community-based corporate leadership. I will just give two local examples of blind self-interest -- labor support for a big new $4.2 billion bridge across the Columbia River, in the face of global warming and $4.00 gas -- because the construction will provide union jobs. SEIU and OEA giving $362,000 in an Attorney General's race, for gods sake, so they could punish a legislator for his leadership in reforming PERS and send a message to all the other politicos they want to control. Labor wants it both ways -- they don't want jobs to go to Mexico, right across our border, but they don't want the immigrants to come here and take jobs either -- poverty in Mexico is not a problem for them. In Oregon, organized labor is the strongest supporter of the status quo, and I can back that up with plenty of facts. Campaign finance reform, for example, is anethama because it threatens the concentration of power in labor leaders' hands today. Who sits on the right hand of our Governor -- representatives of our two biggest public employee unions.
    This self-righteousness about what you don't buy that's made abroad, and working conditions abroad, this mea culpa BS on this board, is annoying and, finally, inexcusable.

  • Harry Kershner (unverified)

    A lot of the anti-union sentiment expressed here on BO during the past week or so is based on a misconception of what unions are. If two of us decide to bargain with each other for better working conditions, we are a union.

    Unions are representative of the middle of the political spectrum, a place where the interests of workers of all political ideologies can be served. Unions should represent their membership, not immigrants, government elites or any other facet of society.

    Those of you who are complaining about the terrible, awesome power of unions should work to remove from office those regressive politicians who take an oath to serve the citizens of Oregon and the nation. Unions do not take that oath, nor should they.


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