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Corporate activism: a contradiction in terms

Earlier this month, Nike, the largest sportswear company in the world, announced an endorsement deal with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests of police brutality have prompted equal parts praise and criticism and fueled the seemingly perpetual debate on U.S. racism. The deal is a powerful signifier of socio-political change (could you imagine this happening even ten years ago?). Indeed, that one of the largest companies in the world — whose reach is so vast as to have become a cornerstone of popular culture itself — has endorsed a black dissenter is a sign that the arc of the moral universe may, in fact, bend toward justice.

Nonetheless, the endorsement is at best a contradiction. Throughout the ’90s and early ’00s, Nike faced harsh criticism for its unethical production practices, which included child labor, dangerous factory conditions, wage theft and more. In 1998, then-chairman and CEO Phil Knight promised major reform of the factories where Nike outsourced its labor. That promise has yet to be substantively realized, however.

In These Times, an affiliate of the Institute for Public Affairs, reported in 2016 that Nike and other companies refused to support proposed wage increases in the Cambodian factories that produce a portion of their commodities. The proposal asked for an additional $40 per month for workers, upping monthly pay from $140 to $180. According to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international collective of labor unions and advocates, a living wage in Cambodia is $283 per month.  Nike failed, then, to support a wage bump that would have increased worker pay from 49 percent of the national living wage to 64 percent of it.

Also in 2016, a report filed with the Fair Labor Association by the University of Washington found that Hansae Co., Ltd. — a factory compound in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where Nike also outsources labor — had violated workers’ rights. The violations at the Hansae factory included: the “suspension of wage increases” when workers didn’t meet demanding production quotas; that women’s work contracts were left to expire “if they became pregnant during the first two years of employment”; and that overtime labor was mandatory.

Nike’s endorsement deal — which purportedly demonstrates its commitment to social justice — is inconsistent with its systematic exploitation of brown and black labor abroad. Nike continues to run roughshod over the rights of its workers. In light of the company’s serial abuses, the Kaepernick deal cannot be a principled stand against injustice.

A better explanation is that the ongoing U.S. protests of institutional racism — and public discourse about the dissent of Kaepernick and other athletes of color, in particular — have compelled Nike to play its hand.

The company has recognized (1) that a deal with Kaepernick will lead to future capital gains (The Washington Post reported last week that Nike’s online sales are already up 31 percent); it’s also foreseen (2) that major U.S. companies — not just Nike and its competitors, but also the NFL, NBA, etc. — whose profitability rests on the backs of black athletes, will one day have to answer the question, “What side were you on? Did you support the status quo, or did you support the black athletes who protested it — the very athletes who keep your business alive?”

The endorsement deal isn’t a genuine commitment to justice on Nike’s part; rather, it’s a farce and a contradiction, representing nothing more than devotion to the bottom line.  

Isaac Scher, a Contributing Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment at IScher18@wooster.edu.

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