More than 90 percent of the Nike workers in Vietnam are girls or young women, aged 15 to 28. Hunger follows many of them like a shadow. They work full time making the fabulous footwear that brings Nike billions, but they aren't paid enough to eat properly, or even regularly.
Workers interviewed ty Thuyen Nguyen, an American businessman who studied conditions in factories that make Nike shoes in Vietnam, said it is a matter of "simple math." A meal consisting of rice, a few mouthfuls of vegetable and maybe some tofu costs the equivalent of 70 cents. Three similarly meager meals a day would cost $2.10. But the workers only make $1.60 a day. And, as Mr. Nguyen points out, they have other expenses.
Renting a room costs at least $6 a month. Clothing has to be purchased. And every now and then the workers have to buy a bar of soap and some toothpaste. To stretch the paycheck, something has to be sacrificed. despite the persistent hunger, it's usually food.
Mr. Nguyen's report, released last week, said: "Thirty-two out of 35 workers interviewed told us they had lost weight since working at Nike factories. All reported not feeling good generally since working at the factories. They complained of frequent headaches as well as general fatigue."
The idea that factory workers don't make enough to eat properly is hardly a matter of concern to Nike. The company set up shop in Vietnam precisely because the wages are so low. If the workers become woozy from hunger, that's their problem. The beauty of the Nike formula is that the cost of the labor to make the product is next to nothing and the price at twhich the product sells is astonishingly high. That's how Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods get to make thier Nike millions, and Phil Knight, the shrewd and combative Nike chairman, his billions. They thrive on the empty stomachs and other hardships of young women overseas.
The women often are treated little better than slaves. Mr. Nguyen said the factories are like "military boot camps" in which workers are subjected to various forms of humiliation and corporal punishment. Even breaks for water and visits to the bathroom are rigidly controlled. One bathroom break per eight-hour shift is allowed, and two drinks of water. That's the maximum. Sometimes, on assembly lines that can range from 78 to 300 workers, even fewer brreaks are allowed. Discomfort becomes a way of life. A worker can be hungry, thirsty and driven almost mad with the need to got to the bathroom, but she has to keep working on those shoes.
Mr. Nguyen said he believes corporal punishment is widespread. He cited several instances: supervisors hitting women over the head for poor workmanship. Workers forced to kneel with their hands in the air for up to 25 minutes. Workers having their mouths taped for talking. Workers being "sun-dried" -- forced to stand in the hot sun for extended periods while writing their mistakes again and again, like schoolchildren.
There were also cases, said Mr. Nguyen, in which women were molested by supervisors.
The factories that make Nike products are by no means the only offenders, in Vietnam or elsewhere. There is no reason to believe that Nike factories are the worst offenders. But Nike has raised the exploitation of the poverty-stricken foreign workers to a fine and spectacularly remunerative art. Nike is the company with the advertising campaigns that are so slick, so hip and so compelling that consumers feel that, whatever the price, they must wear the product. The company is so widely recognized it doesn't even have to put its name in its advertising. Its ubiquitous symbol, the swoosh, is identification enough.
Because the company is so high-profile, so successful, so admired and envied, it has become, like the swoosh, a symbol. It's the ugly multi-national, buying and selling people almost at will. Nike is paying Tiger Woods a fortune, but it has also slapped its swoosh on his head, and Tiger dare not take off that cap. Nike is important because it epitomizes the triumph of monetary values over all others, and the corresponding devaluation of those peculiar interest and values we once thought of as human.
Nike's Boot Camps
Mon. Mar 31, 1997; NY Times, A15