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If Nike Is Serious About Oppression Against People of Color, They Should Pay Their Own Workers

Politics Features Colin Kaepernick
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Nike has endorsed Kaepernick. Good for Kaepernick, and more power to him. If he benefits, excellent. He doesn’t need to prove his moral bona fides.

But Nike is a hypocrite. The company makes its living by underpaying foreign women of color. If they truly believe in what they preach, they will use their power to pay a living wage. Otherwise, they deserve our doubled scorn. You don’t get to claim allyship with Kaepernick without endorsing what Kaepernick stands for.

Kaepernick kneels for people of color persecuted by systems of oppression. Nike is one of those systems.

First, the background. On Sept. 3, Kaepernick shared a photo on his Twitter, a close-up of his face: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt”

According to CNBC,

Nike shares fell Tuesday morning after the reveal of a new ad campaign for the 30th anniversary of “Just Do It,” featuring former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, pulled a wave of responses, both for and against the marketing materials, on social media.

The KaeperNike campaign kicked off a wave of predictable and, frankly, hilarious burnings of Nike swag. The bonfires were set by America’s outraged suburban Dads. Imagine those accumulated years of unused exercise outfits sitting in basements. Trillions of dollars of apparel thrown on burning backyard leaf piles … thousands of panicked men suddenly calling the fire department, because they hadn’t thought of the consequences.

And as Drew Magary pointed out, this is exactly what Nike intended:

Brands like driving the conversation. They like being the sun around which your takes evolve. And that’s because it’s the job of a brand to not only sell sneakers, but also to perpetuate itself. There will always be years when Nike doesn’t sell quite as many sneakers as it would like, and that’s when being an eternally-lasting, global brand name comes in handy. That foothold in the culture assures that you CAN make money, even if you may not be making enough money right this second.

In an unequal country, brands and celebrities are apparently the only agents powerful enough to drive social change. There’s something profoundly unsettling about that.

Problem is, Nike does not believe their own sales copy.

In 2016, Maria Hengeveld wrote a feature for Slate about the women who make Nike’s shoes. It was titled “Nike Boasts of Empowering Women Around the World — While the young women who make its products in Vietnam are intimidated, belittled, and underpaid.”

In her piece, Hengeveld quoted Chang Shin, a Nike contractor worker, who said “Workers still have nothing in Vietnam … Our lives are very difficult.” The shoemaker’s workforce there is eighty percent women in seventy-five factories. They are abused and silenced, she noted.

Hengeveld described the worker housing nearby as “squalid,” and describe women as sharing their rooms with two to five family members. In 2016, their pay was about $200 a month. They required four times that to get by. Hengeveld noted that “they could not even meet the basic needs of their families, let alone save money or contribute to their communities.”

A 2017 Times editorial noted that many women who could quit the industrial jobs did: “Contrary to the expert predictions (and ours), quitting was a wise decision for most. The alternatives were not so bad after all: People who worked in agriculture or market selling earned about as much money as they could have at the factory, often with fewer hours and better conditions.”

Nike knows the economic value of wokeness, as Hengeveld writes. They didn’t invent the idea of co-opting the impoverished woman brand, she notes, but:

“by coining and investing in the Girl Effect, the Nike Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, “gave it authority and made it catchy,” says Kathryn Moeller, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is writing a book about the Girl Effect.

Nike’s market cap is approximately $127.9 billion. By 2012, they had revenue in excess of $24.1 billion. That’s a tenth of the GDP of the Republic of Vietnam. Don’t tell me they can’t pay their workers.

Every single successful company – every single one—could keep their workers healthy, and keep prices low, if they were willing to shovel slightly less cash to the executive suite. A living wage would barely cut into Nike’s profit margins.

Suppose Nike practiced the selfish form of decency. Say they kept executive compensation exactly the same and passed all of the cost onto us.

Even then, the total price increase for consumers would be about a dollar and change. A Fast Company article suggested that it would only cost $1.50 to double the wages of the workers producing a $27 T-shirt. Surveys have shown consumers would be willing to pay a little more, if it meant fair treatment for foreign labor.

When I watch Nike work, I’m reminded of Hollywood’s performative progressiveness. How the entertainment industry orates about social justice … and then lugs their shows to union-free countries. How they speechify on empowering women and minority groups … but won’t give them platforms.

Rich people are never willing to seek justice in the way that actually matters: give people more money.

I suppose if they did, they wouldn’t be wealthy.

There’s a kind of fair play where truth is concerned. You can buy the media, you can buy governments, and God knows you can buy favorable coverage. But you can’t buy justice.

Is Nike serious about defending oppressed people of color? Your workers are people of color. They are oppressed. You are oppressing them. Pay your workers what they deserve. Nike, if you take your brand seriously – and who takes their brand more seriously than Nike?—then there’s no alternative.

Methinks I can imagine a Nike exec defending himself in the middle of a yoga ‘n’ detox room: “Hey, J-Rho. Love your zeal. Admire your passion. We love independent thinkers out here in Beaverton. With respect: our Kaepernick ad is more abstract. We’re not endorsing a specific brand of politics. Y’know. Follow through, do what’s right, and damn the consequences.”

That’s an even stronger argument for paying Nike’s workers what they’re owed.

Kaepernick did what he did, and knew it would upset the rich men who own the NFL. Nike is willing to borrow his courage, but not make any of their own. How appropriate. It’s not enough for Nike to outsource their shoes. They outsource their virtue too. In both cases, young people of color do the hard work for Phil Knight and his private jet club.

If Nike wants to celebrate the difficult path, then why not do something really brave, and pay your workers what they deserve?

C’mon, Beaverton. Just do it.

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