In September 2018, Nike’s announcement of an endorsement deal with Colin Kaepernick brought renewed scrutiny and allegations about the company’s labor practices. The free agent quarterback became a leading figure in ongoing protests against racial injustice by National Football League players and staff, since he first “took a knee” during the playing of the national anthem before matches in the 2016 season.
One sentiment in particular gained traction on social media in the days following the announcement of the Nike deal: that Kaepernick was demonstrating hypocrisy by criticizing injustice against black people in the United States while also agreeing to be an ambassador for Nike, a company with a history of poor treatment of workers in the developing world.
On 4 September, conservative commentator Ryan Fournier tweeted the following widely-shared observations, along with a photograph of women making Nike shoes in a factory:
Just so I’m clear: These factory workers (which are 80% female) are making NIKE’s for 20 cents an hour and working 70 to 80 hours a week, so NIKE can profit enough to pay Colin Kaepernick millions to speak out against oppression and injustice? pic.twitter.com/8NqVVxrl9G
— Ryan Fournier (@RyanAFournier) September 5, 2018
The photograph included in the viral tweet shows workers at a Nike factory in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was captured by Associated Press photographer Richard Vogel in April 2005.
We asked Fournier for documentation of the information in his tweet, but we did not receive a response in time for publication. However, the key figure of “20 cents an hour” appears to derive from reports published in the mid-1990s, a time when Nike’s labor practices came under intense scrutiny.
In 1996, CBS News’ 48 Hours program investigated conditions at Nike factories in Vietnam, finding instances of corporal punishment of female workers and interviewing laborers who earned $40 per month for six days’ work per week (the equivalent of 20 cents per hour).
According to a subsequent report by Dara O’Rourke, a researcher with the Transnational Resource and Action Center, the average wage of nightshift workers at the Tae Kwang Vina factory in Vietnam was closer to 15 cents per hour, with workers performing 10.5 hours a day, six days a week — a total of 252 hours per month, with a monthly salary of $40.
In 2003, the World Bank reported that Nike violated Vietnam’s environmental and labor laws by exposing 10,000 workers (85 percent female) at the Tae Kwang Vina factory to toxic solvents and routinely forcing them to work above the legally-mandated overtime limit.
As a result of an outcry provoked by activist groups in Vietnam and the United States, the World Bank reported, Nike introduced a code of conduct at its Vietnamese factories, vowed to implement U.S. labor laws there, and brought in health and environmental protections for workers, as well as educational opportunities.
The Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance which advocates on behalf of global workers in the garment industry, told us by email that wages for Vietnamese Nike workers had increased somewhat in the past 20 years and provided figures for 2016:
Depending on where the factory is, workers would receive between 118 USD and 171 USD a month for a normal working week. However … it’s not uncommon for the employers to withhold some money (wage-theft) and to force overtime which decreases the wage per hour which workers would effectively take home.
That means Nike workers in Vietnam earned between $0.61 and $0.89 per hour in 2016, based on a working week of 48 hours. However, as the group pointed out, the effects of inflation and an increased cost of living in Vietnam since the 1990s means that this increase in the nominal hourly wage is not as significant in real terms, and may not be that high even in nominal terms, after one accounts for forced overtime, an illegal practice documented by the Worker Rights Consortium in a 2016 report.
We asked Nike for a response to the claims in the viral September 2018 tweet and details on the average hourly wage, weekly hours, and gender breakdown of Nike workers in Vietnam. A spokesperson directed us to the company’s code of conduct and the Nike manufacturing map.
According to the manufacturing map, 80 percent of the 385,000 Nike workers in Vietnam are women, as of 6 September 2018, which corresponds with one claim in the tweet.
Nike’s code of conduct does not contain data on average wages or hours, but it does outline the company’s expectations of factories where their products are made, including commitments that all work be voluntary, employees be over 16, harassment and abuse be forbidden, wages be paid on time, the workplace br safe, and so on.
The spokesperson quoted the following sections from the Nike wage policy, which can be read in full here:
Nike expects that factory employees are timely paid at least the minimum wage required by country law, or prevailing wage, whichever is higher, and an overtime premium aligned with local law, or 125% of the employee’s base hourly rate, whichever is higher, plus legally mandated benefits, including holidays and leaves, and statutory severance when employment ends …
Suppliers shall not require workers to work more than the regular and overtime hours allowed by the law of the country where the workers are employed. The regular work week shall not exceed 48 hours. Suppliers shall allow workers at least 24 consecutive hours of rest in every seven-day period. All overtime work shall be consensual. Suppliers shall not request overtime on a regular basis and shall compensate all overtime work at a premium rate. Other than in extraordinary circumstances, the sum of regular and overtime hours in a week shall not exceed 60 hours.
The tweet that went viral in September 2018 stated that Nike workers in Vietnam earned 20 cents per hour. This was certainly true in the 1990s, when a series of investigations forced the company to make changes in its labor practices. However, the pay for Nike workers in Vietnam has increased since then.
The tweet also accurately asserted that 80 percent of Nike factory workers in Vietnam were women, and that they performed between 70 and 80 hours a week. Again, there is evidence that this was so in the 1990s, but since then conditions have improved somewhat, and an external 2016 report found that, while some workers were forced into illegal amounts of overtime, the statutory working week of 48 hours is often respected, and a working week of 70 to 80 hours is not typical.