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Autor:   •  April 19, 2011  •  1,127 Words (5 Pages)  •  270 Views

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It's not easy being a consumer in the global economy. Moral dilemmas confront you at every turn. Was this pair of space-age Nike shoes produced in an Asian sweatshop? Dare I sheathe my feet in the product of modern-day slave labour? Should I boycott? Then again, who am I to pass judgment on the workplace norms of other people? "Exploitation" is a culturally relative concept, isn't it? Why do I have to deal with this now? Why don't those Asian governments enforce fair working conditions and leave me to frolic carefree through my local mall? And for crying out loud, why, if the labour is so cheap over there, do these Nike sneakers cost $200?

This last question, though less existentially weighty, probably has more impact on people--and on Nike--than any other. Even activists who are organizing awareness campaigns about Nike's labour practices have to admit it. "Ultimately, I don't think Nike's recent downturn in sales has that much to do with their sweatshop practices," says Toronto labour activist Bob Jeffcott, commenting on Nike's recent troubles with its bottom line. "People just find it outrageous that they're paying so much for a pair of running shoes."

But as far as Jeffcott is concerned, even that question is a step in the right direction, because it means Nike's carefully crafted image is falling apart. And that, ultimately, is what the anti-Nike awareness campaign--including the international day of protest against Nike, which takes place this Saturday, April 18--is all about. Nike's not selling shoes, Jeffcott explains, it's selling a manufactured identity. Once people question that identity in any way, they're more open to his message: Nike's not just taking you to the cleaners, it's taking 500,000 Asian sweatshop workers to the cleaners with you.

But if people choose not to buy Nike, a report issued late last year says that there is really no alternative. The report, by Hong Kong's Asia Monitor Resource Centre, states that in some Chinese sweatshops workers spend half the day producing Nike shoes, the other half producing Adidas. Reebok also relies heavily on Asian sweatshops. Does anyone make an ethical shoe anymore? "No," says Jacques Bertrand of Montreal-based Development and Peace. "They just make money."


Whether for reasons of political awareness, retail price, market saturation or fashion whimsy, Nike is a company in trouble. One month ago, the world's leading athletic footwear corporation announced that quarterly profits were down 69 per cent from the previous year. Footwear sales globally are the slowest they've been in a decade. Nike was forced to lay off 1,600 of the 22,000 people it employs directly. (Nike's Asian manufacturing is handled by sub-contractors, so those half-million sweatshop workers are technically not Nike employees.) Company spokesperson Vada Manager points out that Nike's quarterly revenues are still well over $2 billion. Manager admits that the anti-Nike campaigns--like the letter-writing campaign organized by Bertrand which resulted in 147,000 letters of protest flooding Nike headquarters--are a factor in Nike's recent troubles, but says the impact is "unquantifiable."

Perhaps, but the political campaigns have been remarkably effective in raising awareness of Asian sweatshop practices. The story has become a favourite of mainstream U.S. media: Nike's sub-contractors are mostly based in Taiwan, Hong Kong or South Korea, but they set up shop in Indonesia, China or Vietnam, where labour standards are less strict. Workers, mostly young women, some barely teenagers at age 13, work 12-hour days for less than minimum wage. Stories of physical and sexual abuse abound. In China, the subcontractors withhold employees' first month of wages as a bond to keep them from leaving. When Indonesia raised its minimum wage by 20 cents to $2.46 U.S. a day, Nike executive Jim Small publicly stated that "Indonesia is pricing itself out of the market."

In response to the campaigns, Nike spends a lot of money creating good spin, an attempt to prop up its "Just Do It"/"Yes I Can" empowerment image, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. It hired international


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