Nike: People are people no matter where they work


An interview with Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight relates the story of his son’s tragic scuba diving death and Knight’s reaction. “Knight and his wife, Penny, were devastated. In a note to his staff, Knight told them that instead of sending him condolences, they should make a point of spending more time with their own families.” Obviously the reaction of a caring, compassionate man, and a man who fully grasps the priority of humanity over profits.

How then can we understand the dichotomy between such compassion and Nike’s institutional commitment to systemic exploitation of folks working in factories? An article in the Wall Street Journal titled Inside Nike's Struggle to Balance Cost and Worker Safety in Bangladesh describes an amazingly screwed up culture and one that is difficult to reconcile with the humanitarian and caring gestures Knight demonstrates close to home.

Nike has what they call ‘manufacturing’ people, including a guy named Nick Athanasakos whose title is vice president of global sourcing and manufacturing; and Chief Operating Officer Eric Sprunk, also described as being in charge of manufacturing. But Nike has no interest in and certainly no real expertise in manufacturing. As Knight said, “Nike is a marketing-oriented company…” and “We understand the most important thing we do is market the product.” Manufacturing is just the dirty work best done by people willing to do such dirty work on the cheap.

The ‘manufacturing’ people at Nike are merely the internal champions of seeking out and making maximum use – abuse – of cheap labor. If they were actually manufacturing people they would be ashamed of and outraged over factories such as the one they championed in Bangladesh – the one in which they “slogged up a dirty staircase to the top floors of an eight-story building” and had “rolls of fabric were strewn across the production floor and some windows were bolted shut.” No serious manufacturing person with even the least measure of pride would have urged the company to perform production in such a pig sty of a factory. Only some sort of mercenary focused solely on grubbing for pennies wants to be associated with such a plant.

The problem with the Nike culture, values and business model is more apparent in the basis for their conflict over whether or not to source production in Bangladesh. They were not weighing the cost savings versus the dangerous, wretched, abusive conditions in which those savings would be produced. Rather, they weighed the benefits of the cost savings against the public relations problems that might flow from availing themselves of savings from those wretched conditions.

They “hired an outside consultant to create a ‘country risk index’ to score the potential downside of doing business in certain locations. Bangladesh ranked near the bottom.” The risk, however, is not of someone getting hurt, it would seem, but of the consequences of human tragedy on their sales and profits. The article is rife with Nike concerns that its business model “has periodically sullied its image.” Its primary motive for creating the job of their internal anti-worker abuse crusader was not a humanitarian concern, but that “some at the company worried its brand would be permanently damaged.

Image? Brand? What about the people whose suffering would cause the image and brand to deteriorate? What does it say about the culture when such decisions are made by people whose responsibilities are to balance cost versus image?

Most curious of all is the startling gap between compassion for the people who work in management at Nike headquarters who are urged to spend more time with their families and the complete lack of concern for the human beings who work in wretched, dangerous conditions in faraway places for pennies. Is it possible to see this view of well paid Americans as people, but Bangladeshi garment workers as little more than numbers or factory machines as anything other than blatant racism?

Greg Rossiter, of Nike Corporate Communications in Beaverton, Oregon, said in an email that Nike was ‘aware and concerned by the events at the Yue Yuen factory’“ where workers are striking over the company’s failure to comply with basic Chinese laws governing worker pensions and so forth. Too bad Nike isn’t as concerned by the abuse of people as it is about the events.

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