Nike’s Token Equality: New Campaign Masks the Truth About Workers’ Rights

Adweek called the "Equality" ad "a gorgeous piece of work." Which it is, but...

Last month Nike debuted its “Equality” campaign with an ad featuring high-profile athletes like Serena Williams, LeBron James, and Megan Rapinoe. And for International Women’s Day, Nike announced a “Pro Hijab” for female Muslim athletes, with its own eye-grabbing (and controversial) video.

These ads are inspirational—unless you believe that the factory workers making Nike sneakers, who are largely female and people of color, should actually be treated as equals!

Almost twenty years ago, in a powerful essay called “Token Equality,”  leading scholar of race and class Adolph Reed Jr. lampooned the efforts of companies such as Nike to “project corporate images that advance, sometimes even provocatively, a multicultural sensibility—as they amass huge profits from the exploitation of nonwhite labor.”

The most recent evidence about Nike’s supply chain shows that Reed’s critique remains as relevant as ever.

Nike has failed to promote justice for workers for decades. In 1997 filmmaker Michael Moore lambasted Nike CEO Phil Knight in “The Big One” for allowing young teenage girls to produce Nike sneakers in Indonesian sweatshops. About a decade later social justice educators Jim Keady and Leslie Kretzu travelled to Indonesia to live on Nike’s starvation wages for a month. Their documentary “Behind the Swoosh” revealed the deplorable plight of Nike factory workers, who were beaten for fighting for better conditions.

The list of times and places where workers in Nike’s global supply chain have been enslaved (forced labor is enslavement), robbed of their wages, or verbally and physically abused since then goes on and on.

Fast forward to 2017. While Nike has made some progress in the area of corporate social responsibility, the company still fails to “just do it” when it comes to protecting the dignity and rights of all workers. According to Professor John Kline, a Georgetown University Professor of International Business Diplomacy, Nike has expressed its commitment to decent wages. However, the company does not compensate its subcontractors enough to pay a living wage.  In fact, Nike workers earn $3.50 a day in Indonesia. That’s not enough to purchase a gallon of milk there! It barely buys a Big Mac!

Today no one can claim ignorance. Workers have journeyed to the U.S. to give gut-wrenching accounts of their travails. Journalists and watchdog groups have exhaustively exposed the injustices workers making Nike products endure. Read, for example, this recent article based on interviews of eighteen women in Vietnam who have experienced intimidation, abuse, and threats but say they cannot speak without facing retribution—then go back and watch that “Equality” ad.

Nike has come under fire lately for denying the Workers’ Rights Consortium access to their contractor factory “Hansae” in Vietnam, where workers have protested against labor rights violations. The WRC is an independent monitoring agency that has documented working conditions at factories making collegiate apparel since 2000. Nike had allowed the WRC to monitor its factories in the past, but decided to impede the WRC’s access this past year.

The WRC gained a single entry to Hansae in October 2016. This visit generated a  report, which concluded that workers in the factory have suffered “extensive wage theft; illegal recruitment fees, extorted from workers by managers; chronic verbal abuse and incidents of physical harassment of workers; pregnancy discrimination; forced overtime; illegal restrictions on workers’ access to toilets; illegal denial of sick leave; putting factory managers in charge of the factory’s labor union; and dozens of health and safety violations.”

Nike’s unwillingness to permit long-term audits by the WRC will “set labor code reforms back 15 years,” according to Kline. He and students at Georgetown have called on the university to end its business relationship with Nike. Villanova students created a petition, underscoring the conflict between the university’s Catholic values and Nike’s complicity in worker exploitation. Administrators at universities including Cornell, Rutgers, Oberlin, Georgetown and Villanova have urged Nike to collaborate with the WRC.

Nike apparently has a history of stifling the WRC.  In 2000 The New York Times reported that Knight rescinded a proposed $30 million gift to the University of Oregon because it enlisted the WRC.

Some may say equality means having the ability to vote, determine whom one marries, where one works, lives, etc.  Wages and working conditions are determined by the market. Those workers can work elsewhere…that’s the beauty of capitalism…

They are wrong!

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best: “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” As Peter Dreier discusses, Dr. King’s vision of equality and justice included workers’ rights. King understood that guaranteeing civil and political rights was one step towards equality. Equality, he contended in a 1961 speech to the AFL-CIO, also requires “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.”

Dr. King was killed while in Memphis in 1968 while standing in solidarity with sanitation workers on strike to protest paltry wages and abusive working conditions. Still, the Poor People’s Campaign King founded in 1968 with Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy lives on. Its members contest a global economic system that consigns three billion people to poverty and 870 million to chronic malnourishment.

Contemporary activists—those at the forefront of the struggle for worker’s rights—may not know it, but there are deep resources across religious traditions that support this crucial work.

For over two decades Interfaith Worker Justice has allied members of multiple faiths who recognize the call to support beleaguered workers in their religions. For example, Islamic scholars point out the Holy Qur’an exhorts employers to “Give full measure when you measure out and weigh with a fair balance. This is fair and better in the end” (17:35).  A Manual of Hadith states “when you hire, compensate the workers and treat them fairly.” As Rabbi Jill Jacobs has written, Judaism also has a robust tradition in halakhah, or Jewish law, mandating just wages and treatment of workers. This tradition commends a living wage, respect for the dignity of all workers, and honoring their decision to unionize. A well-known passage in Deuteronomy warns that the Lord will judge those who withhold wages from workers who need them to live.

The tradition of Roman Catholicism–which animates discussions about Nike at Georgetown and Villanova given that both are Catholic universities–has long held that equality must include the protection of workers’ rights. The Catholic social tradition’s commitment to workers’ rights inspired Cezar Chavez, Dorothy Day, The Solidarność movement in Poland and countless others to struggle for “bread and freedom.”

Building on Pope Leo’s defense of workers in the late nineteenth century, Pope John Paul II argued in his 1981 encyclical on human labor that all workers have the right to work, a just wage, form unions and strike, a safe working environment, parental leave and unemployment insurance.

More recently Pope Francis declared that the denial of workers’ right to a life of dignity is a direct result of “an economic system that puts profits above people and the effect of a disposable culture that considers the human being in himself as a consumer good, which can be used and then discarded.”

The pope’s words speak to the dehumanizing situation of Nike factory workers. People of all races, genders, creeds, ethnicities, and nationalities must form a powerful movement to stop “the Swoosh” from hiding behind excuses and platitudinous ads and “just do it” for their workers.

We should applaud the athletes like James, Williams, and Rapinoe in the “Equality” commercial for condemning prejudice against African Americans, immigrants, women and LGBT people. However, they should also use their formidable voices to advocate for the workers who make Nike shoes in Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Honduras and elsewhere.

A public championing of the rights of those workers—alongside thousands of college students, professors and activists–might more effectively prod Nike to finally “just do it.”