Fitness Shoes and Factory Workers

“Thus saith the Lord: For three transgressions…I will not turn away the punishment thereof,
because they sold the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes.” Amos 2:6

One of my favorite hobbies is long distance walking. When I think about buying a new pair of sports shoes, I think about the size and fit, whether it has too much cushioning, enough ventilation, and a good look on my feet. I typically do not think about the factory workers who glued it together, often sacrificing their own health and security in order to give me the perfect product.

Two sports shoe giants – Nike and Reebok – have developed poor reputations in the last two decades for their factories in China, Indonesia and Vietnam. These countries have no protective laws for laborers and the companies can benefit off of authoritarian regimes that keep workers submissive.

While in the US shoe companies market the empowerment of women and the athletic possibilities of inner-city kids, they often take advantage of exactly these two groups in other countries.

Nike may have a Code of Conduct, and they may claim to expect that the companies they work with abide by the same code, but they have not held their subcontractors accountable as they should. That is not surprising, since one of the benefits of using subcontractors is the distance they provide between the CEO and the laborers.

Some of the abuses reported by Nike’s factory workers in China:

  • Dishonest pay/no pay stubs provided
  • No protection from dangerous chemicals, including benzene, which is banned in the U.S., and thinners that can cause cancer of the blood
  • Taking illegal deposits from workers for the first month with no intention of paying them back later
  • Risk of firing because of pregnancy, old age (read: 25), or talking to co-workers during 16-hour day
  • 2-4 days off/month, and none during peak production season
  • No health coverage when limbs and fingers are lost during production
  • Thick dust and glue fumes that must be inhaled throughout work day
  • Compulsory overtime: if a worker refuses, she is fined the day’s wages or terminated
  • 18-day wage fines for missing required morning exercise session
  • Beatings by security guards for leaving premises without permission
  • Ongoing sickness, particularly in gluing section of factories
  • Children as young as 13 working in the factories without any educational resources offered

Not only are most workers unaware of their company’s Code of Conduct, but many of them mistake it for the quality control standard that their shoes have to meet in order to be exported.

Also, approximately 80% of the workers in fitness shoe factories are women. Some human rights groups argue that this occurs because women are typically less educated than men in under-developed countries, and thus are paid much less and are unlikely to know their rights, let alone organize.

Nike and Reebok have been behaving outside of the labor laws of China.

But don’t overshoot and boycott the jerks, even if they mistreat women, hire children and beat their workers. The laborers about whom I’m writing are grateful for any work. And according to the New York Times on Saturday, China’s unskilled laborers are being offered bonus packages and 20% wage increases in an extreme twist of fate. China lacks the laborers it needs right now, and it is a worker’s paradise compared to when the first studies about Nike and Reebok came out.

So while we are paying more and more for less and less – $100/pair for shoes it took $5 to make – at least laborers in China are, for the moment, getting the upper hand against their own government, and against our corporations.

Perhaps soon Nike will realize that New Balance has been going strong even while manufacturing many of their shoes in the United States. And Coca-Cola has been succeeding, even while paying laborers in Asia above minimum wage so that their workers can provide for their families.

And maybe then they’ll start abiding by their own Code of Conduct.

Join in!
Share your thoughts on labor law, corporate hierarchies, and factory work here.

Further resources:

In case the list against Nike isn’t bad enough, see why some Muslims hate them, too, and even refer to them as “pesky infidels.”

Also, one of my favorite organizations, Liberty in North Korea: LiNK’s, is in the running to win $250k from Pepsi for their proposal to open a freedom house in the US for the North Korean refugees who make it here. They will provide food, shelter, language and job training, and some serious counseling.

In February they came in at 4th place. This month they are already at #7. The top two ideas each month receive the $250,000. And all you have to do is vote! Every day your vote is reset and you can vote again, so please consider going back to vote again often.

One Response to “Fitness Shoes and Factory Workers”
  1. Darrell says:

    If the US had left its manufacturing infrastructure intact, we would still be able to make shoes here at a profit or at least competitively. Instead, so called free trade legislation such as GATT and WTO sent manufacturing away so that we could be a “consumption” economy but it’s hard to prosper when you consume more than you produce. As for China I’ve never been there unless you count Hong Kong and when I was there it was British. You mentioned Vietnam and I did spend some time there. It’s hard to imagine conditions there being worse now than then. Never mind the war things were very very hard for the Vietnamese people especially women. When you have millions of foreign troops passing through a relatively small country over a 10 year period the economy changes to accomodate them. Vietnam has been accomodating foreigners since 1857 when the French invaded and conquered that country. In 1937 the Japanese expelled the French and in 1946 the French came back giving way to the Americans in 1954 after Dien Bien Phu. When the war ended in 1975, trade deals were started to bring the country into the modern world. Those cultures are different and its difficult to judge them based on our labor standards. When I was in school everybody wanted Chuck Taylor Allstars like the varsity players wore but they cost $12 and who could afford that. It is more reflective of dollar destruction than anything else. That’s the Federal Reserve’s fault. Not that it makes it OK because I’m opposed to exporting jobs, but low wage manufacturing has allowed the profit margin sufficient for inovation and increasingly advanced technology. Increased tax, regulation, and labor problems kills inovation because it drains productive capitle. It’s hard for us to realize that we now must compete with 1.5 billion Chinese and 1 billion Indians for labor but that’s the way it is.

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