The Rebel Girl: Nike’s Global Swooshploitation

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

Catherine Sameh

NIKE’S ANNUAL SHAREHOLDER meeting on September 22 was less than celebratory. According to a front page Oregonian article the next day, the company appeared on the defensive, spending “much of the meeting dealing with renewed allegations that the company is exploiting and abusing factory workers in Asia.”

Chairman Phil Knight was responding to a just-released report on labor practices at his company’s sweatshops in China. The report, according to the local alternative paper Portland Alliance, states “the factories use girls as young as 13, require employees to work 72-hour weeks, fire pregnant women, and fine employees for talking during work.”

Knight went so far as to red-bait Global Exchange, one of the activist groups who organized a press conference outside the meeting. The Oregonian reports that Knight criticized Global Exchange for “supporting the Chiapas rebels in southern Mexico, supporting Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba and criticizing Nike.”

Though Nike’s shares and total sales continue to rise, and the corporate giant still enjoys a certain immunity from the sting of its critics, Knight’s defensiveness points to a small but growing movement against sweatshop labor that continues to gain momentum and world attention.

Nike, with worldwide visibility and popularity, remains an important target for the movement against sweatshop labor and capital flight. Its clever and aggressive marketing of a “liberatory lifestyle” for women, girls and poor youth is so compelling and seductive as to blind even the most well-meaning consumers to the company’s exploitative practices.

Yet it’s precisely Nike’s appeal to feminism and multi-culturalism in its advertising that makes it vulnerable: The company’s basic enslavement of a mostly female Asian work force continues to reveal a blatant and brutal hypocrisy.

Feminists along with labor, religious and human rights group must make this critique again and again–not only of Nike, but of all multinational corporations enslaving workers in sweatshops. William Greider in his recent book, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, chronicles a slew of industrial fires in Asian factories producing goods for U.S. consumers.

Beginning with what he calls “the worst industrial fire in the history of capitalism,” Greider discusses the fire that burned down the Kader Industrial Toy Company of Thailand in 1993.

Killing 188 and injuring 469 workers, the Kader fire “surpassed what was previously the worst industrial fire in history–the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911–when 146 young immigrant women died in similar circumstances at a garment factory on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”

But whereas the Triangle Shirtwaist fire sparked labor and reform movements in this country 85 years ago, news of the Kader fire, Greider reports, its victims mostly women and girls, met worldwide indifference. Greider goes on to name several other industrial fires under equivalent conditions, including the 1991 Hamlet, North Carolina chicken-processing factory fire.   

Only united–from labor to feminists, from anti-imperialists to environmentalists–can we challenge the capitalist system that is ravaging the earth and enslaving the majority of its people. Nike–and every other company using sweatshops to produce consumer goods–must be held accountable by all social justice movements.

ATC 71, November-December 1997