Nike: how 'cool' is exploitation?

August 28, 1996

Nike: how 'cool' is exploitation? Graphic

By Norm Dixon

Image is a vital to the success of the giant international sports footwear and apparel corporation Nike. Endorsements by sports superstars like basketballer Michael Jordan, soccer maestro Eric Cantona and sprinting ace Cathy Freeman — to name just a very few — have made the company's "Swoosh" logo synonymous with "cool" for millions of young people worldwide. That image would be badly tarnished if it became widely known that the Nike empire is built on cheap Third World labour (including child labour), denial of trade union rights and collaboration with repressive regimes, most notably the Suharto regime in Indonesia.

Nike Australia's public relations spokesperson, Megan Ryan, was coy about how much the company spends on marketing and sponsorship when Green Left Weekly spoke to her recently.

She refused to disclose how much it pays top athletes to endorse its products. She said Nike sought to sponsor, and be endorsed by, the "best athletes possible" as a recognition of their achievements. The only image Nike sought from association with sports mega-heroes was to be recognised as an "authentic" sports brand. "Nike is not a fashion brand", she insisted.

Perhaps Ryan hasn't stood on a city street corner, or in a suburban shopping centre, to see just how much Nike gear has become part of youth culture. This is in large part due to the "street cred" that comes from being associated with the likes of the larger-than-life Michael Jordan and the outrageous "dunk-punk" Dennis Rodman, US NBA basketball — according to one poll, the most popular sport among Australian young people — and, indirectly, African-American fashion and music.

Okay, Ryan finally conceded, there is "some flow-through effect". In fact, more than 60% of Nike sales are to non-athletes.

To achieve this "flow-through effect" Nike pays Jordan, the jewel in its endorsement crown, an estimated US$20 million a year to have a sandshoe named after him. In 1992, the company forked out $250 million on its advertising and promotion budget alone. Nike advertisements appear in magazines not noted for their sports content, such as Rolling Stone and the Source, the premier US hip hop magazine.

Nike billboards have featured the Swoosh symbol painted by street graffiti artists, and flying basketballers letting loose with technical sports terms like: "I'm gonna dunk on your ass". And, of course, Nike has a home page on the World Wide Web where athletic Web surfers are urged to "hear Spike Lee talk about the Air Jordan XI, call 1-800-645-6031" (perhaps Spike jogs?).

Nike has a penchant for sponsoring aggressive young sports people with a rebel image or who succeed against the odds, reflected in the Nike slogan "Just Do It". This explains the high profile given to African-American athletes. Nike's international stable of stars includes tennis brat Andre Agassi, US basketball stars Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley, outspokenly anti-racist French soccer hero Eric Cantona, world record-holder and 1996 Olympics track sensation Michael Johnson and the US Olympic team.

Its Australian contingent includes Cathy Freeman, high jumper Tim Forsyth, marathon runner Steve Monaghetti, test cricketers Shane Warne, Michael Slater, Ricky Ponting and Glen McGrath, the AFL's North Melbourne, Melbourne and Fremantle teams, Super League's Brisbane Broncos, Canberra Raiders and Sydney Bulldogs as well as sundry individual Murdoch-aligned players, basketball's North Melbourne Giants, Brisbane Bullets and Adelaide, as well as four members of the Australian netball team.

For young people under capitalism, especially the poorest and most discriminated against, one of the few routes out of poverty and hopelessness is through individual success in sport or music.

In the US, sports people and musicians — especially black basketballers and hip hop artists — are idolised. The outfits of the sports fields influence street fashion — the baggy shorts, the baseball hats, the basketball singlets, the sandshoes — and this street fashion in turn is reflected on the hip hop stage. African-American and minority youth culture influences white youth in the US, and youth throughout the world. It is no coincidence that working-class Australian kids from migrant backgrounds keenly identify with hip hop and basketball.

The "flow-through effect" of all this prestige and street cred helps Nike sell hundreds of thousands of shoes at between $120 and $230 a pair to many young people who can ill afford them. In 1990, Jesse Jackson and the civil rights group Operation PUSH charged that Nike sold more than 40% of its shoes to members of the black and minority communities, yet little of that income remained in the communities. PUSH was outraged at reports of African-American youth killing each other to steal shoes that they could not afford, saying that Nike targets poor urban kids in its hard sell. Surveys show that 77% of teenage men in the US want to wear Nikes. More than half of all Nike's sales and 75% of its basketball shoe sales are to people under 25.

At the time, Nike denied that it singled out young, poor, minority youth but "we do sell to psychographic segments", a spokesperson told Sports Illustrated. "Such as people who love only basketball. We sell to passions and states of mind, not by age, address or ethnicity." Despite a ban on the use of the word "fashion" by Nike execs, a spokesperson conceded that Nike makes "shoelaces longer because of lacing styles favoured by the kids. All the kids leave the tags on certain shoes, so we've made the tags look nicer."

A sports shop owner in predominantly black Newark was more straightforward: "Most of the people in this store, their lives are shit, their homes in the projects are shit, and it's not like they don't know it. There's no drop-in centre around here any more, and no place to go that they can think of as their own. So they come to my store. They buy these shoes just like other kinds of Americans buy fancy cars and new suits. It's all about trying to find some status in the world."

But this "cool", "rebellious" and aggressive image, with its subliminal theme of overcoming an unfair society through effort and commitment, is a cruel, multimillion-dollar hoax.

Founder Phil Knight's Nike empire, worth US$5 billion according to Fortune magazine, has been built over three decades on advertising hype and exploiting Third World labour, poor working conditions, denial of trade union rights and collaboration with repressive regimes. Nike's corporate motto of "enhancing people's lives through sports and fitness" does not extend to workers toiling in its Third World sweatshops.

Nike began in 1962 as Blue Ribbon Sports. From the beginning its strategy was based on outsourcing production to low-wage Asian countries, first to Japan. When wages improved there, Nike operations shifted to South Korea and Taiwan. Indonesia is now Nike's main production centre, where 120,000 workers receive a paltry A$2.80 a day. Human rights organisations charge that child labour is not uncommon. A bottom-of-the-line pair of Nike basketball boots on sale in Australia would cost an Indonesian worker 40 days' wages.

Nike's operations moved to Indonesia (as well as China, Thailand and, most recently, Vietnam) from South Korea in the late '80s after rising worker militancy forced Seoul to permit workers to organise. The Indonesian dictatorship promised low wages and an environment where strikes are not allowed and trade unions independent of the regime are forbidden.

Attempts to organise to improve conditions are met with repression. "Employers always call the police, and they come and interrogate the workers", Apong Herlima of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation told a reporter in March. "Then the workers are fired."

Last October, Tongris Situmorang, a worker at a Nike factory in Serang, was sacked and then locked in a store room and questioned by military goons for five days after leading a strike demanding payment of the legal minimum wage.

Nike's carefully constructed image has taken a battering in the US in recent weeks as human rights and social justice activists have highlighted Nike's role in exploiting Indonesian workers. Former Nike worker Cicih Sukaesih toured the US in July. Sukaesih attempted to meet with Michael Jordan in Chicago and Phillip Knight at the company's head office in Portland, Oregon, without success. While in Portland, she tried on a Nike shoe for the first time in her life.

Sukaesih said she wanted to ask Jordan why is he accepting millions of dollars from a company that so blatantly takes advantage of its cheap labour force. "Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi and Spike Lee make us forget the real heroes behind the Nike image", Sukaesih told the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "They are the labourers faced with forced overtime, minimum-wage violations, illegally low training wages, and abusive employers in countries such as China, South Korea and Indonesia to which Nike has contracted its manufacturing."

Sukaesih said that in the Jakarta factory where she worked in 1992, supervisors would beat and yell at workers to make them work faster and refuse to let them go to the toilet. They were paid below the government minimum wage and forced to do unpaid overtime. When the company began to deduct money from workers' pay for lunch, she led a strike of 6500 workers.

The workers won a pay increase and free meals, but a month later Sukaesih was detained and interrogated by police and later she and 24 others were sacked. She remains on a blacklist that has kept her unemployed ever since.

Sukaesih's US tour is being sponsored by a coalition called the Working Group on Nike. It is demanding that Nike allow independent monitoring of its factories by Indonesian human rights groups, that Nike allow workers to organise free trade unions in its factories, that workers be paid a living wage and that Nike stop using child labour. The coalition is planning monthly North America-wide pickets of Nike retail outlets beginning September 14.

While there is no similar campaign in Australia, Jo Brown, spokesperson for Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor, told Green Left Weekly that Australian activists should do all in their power to support the movement for democracy in Indonesia to bring an end to the Suharto regime which allows such exploitation and repression. More bad sports

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