Choked by Air Nikes

Sweatshops in Vietnam

Revolutionary Worker #908, May 25, 1997

Voiceover as footage rolls of Ho Chi Minh City: The signs are everywhere of an American invasion in search of cheap labor. Millions of people who are literate, disciplined and desperate for jobs. This is Nike Town near what used to be called Saigon, one of five factories Nike doesn't own but subcontracts to make a million shoes a month. It takes 25,000 workers, mostly young women, to `Just Do It.' But the workers here don't share in Nike's huge profits. They work six days a week for only $40 a month, just 20 cents an hour.

Transcript from CBS News 48 Hours, October 17, 1996


In the 1980s Nike and other shoe companies like Reebok, Adidas, Asics, Fila and L.A. Gear, manufactured a lot of their shoes in South Korea. They paid workers very low wages, set up sweatshops with horrible working conditions and counted on the South Korean government to suppress any protests by the workers. Then in the late '80s and early '90s, Nike and its subcontractors began shutting down factories in South Korean and moved to China, Indonesia, and Thailand. Here they could pay women workers even less. And other athletic shoe companies also now have factories in these countries.

In Thailand Nike pays workers 65 to 74 cents an hour. In Vietnam Nike workers get 20 cents an hour. In Indonesia it's 16 to 20 cents an hour. And in China workers sewing Nikes get as little as 10 to 14 cents an hour. Nike is always looking for a new situation--a new country where workers can be paid even less, can be exploited even more, where the profit margin is even higher.

Shoe production is a relatively mobile industry--it can pick up and move much more easily than an auto or a steel producer. And this has allowed companies like Nike to establish a simple pattern of operation: when wages and living standards increase and when workers protest low wages and bad working conditions, Nike "just moves it" to another country.

In the 1980s, Nike produced 90 percent of its shoes in Taiwan and Korea. Now most of its shoes and clothes are manufactured in China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam. More than a third of Nike's products are manufactured in Indonesia. Another third is manufactured in China. And in recent years, more Nike products are being made in Vietnam where the minimum wage is as a low as $30 a month.

When Nike started moving its production sites to Asia, it also moved away from owning factories outright. It retained control over the design and marketing of its shoes, but instituted a strategy of subcontracting manufacturing of its shoes to foreign-owned companies.

Officially, Nike has this nice-sounding "Code of Conduct" that's supposed to apply to companies that manufacture its products. And by using subcontractors, Nike hopes to distance itself from the sweatshops that produce its goods. But no matter how many hip ads Nike does, the ugly truth is that Nike imperialism is ruthlessly exploiting and oppressing thousands of workers throughout the world.

In October 1996, the CBS-TV program 48 Hours ran a segment which detailed the abuse of Nike workers in Vietnam. A group of Vietnamese-Americans, deeply disturbed by the report, organized a group called Vietnam Labor Watch (VLW) and contacted labor groups and journalists in Vietnam and arranged an investigative trip.

Nike, trying to do damage control, invited the group to come to Vietnam. And from March 2-18, 1997 members of Vietnam Labor Watch visited Nike factories in Vietnam. They met with workers, shoe manufacturing executives, labor union officials, union representatives, legal experts and foreign investment experts.

VLW members were taken on official visits to various Nike factories. But workers later told them that the factory management warns workers when there are going to be visitors from the U.S. or Europe and many of them are afraid there will be retaliation if they speak truthfully with visitors. When visitors come, workers are allowed to work slower and supervisors don't punish them. But then, when the visitors leave, things go back to normal.

When a Nike representative took VLW members on an official visit to the Sam Yang plant in Ho Chi Minh City, the doors to the six factories of this facility were wide open, as they should be according to fire codes. But later in the day, when some VLW members went back to this same facility, three of the factories had their doors shut tight while workers were still inside creating a situation where any small fire could have led to the loss of many lives.

The VLW delegation decided to do some investigation on their own. They conducted surprise visits to Sam Yang and three other plants that produce Nike shoes--Pouchen, Dona Victor and Tae Kwan Vina. And off factory premises they did in-depth interviews with 35 Nike workers. What they heard about and saw, first hand, was the brutality of these Nike sweatshops. They learned how on a daily basis, the workers making these world-famous shoes are subjected to physical and sexual abuse, pay below minimum wage, dangerous health and safety conditions, and oppressive quota systems.

Slave Wages

Phil Knight, top CEO of Nike, is worth over $5 billion and is the sixth richest man in America. Nike made $673 million in profits last year.

To buy a pair of the shoes she makes, a Nike worker in Vietnam would have to spend every penny she makes for two to three months.


Over 90 percent of the workers who make Nike products in Vietnam are women, and most of them are between the ages of 15 and 28. Most of these women come from rural areas to work in the city. But while they might have had hopes of sending money to their families in the countryside, they don't even make enough to feed themselves.

The 1996 48 Hours program reported that workers at Nike shoe manufacturing plants in Vietnam made an average of 20 cents an hour. Team leaders were making $42 per month. And regular workers made even less.

The VLW delegation found that a full-time worker received less than $27 for March and April 1996--when the minimum wage in Vietnam was $35. A minimum wage of $45 a month was set in July 1996 and Nike claims wages have improved since then. But examining the workers' pay stubs revealed that they received less than $38 a month between November 1996 and February 1997. Vietnamese labor law also stipulates that workers should be paid 1.5 times the regular wage for overtime, 1.3 times for night shift and double-time for Sundays and holidays. But Nike workers said they frequently got cheated out of these wages.

Over 60 percent of the workers interviewed by the VLW delegation said they were not paid overtime wages when they worked extra hours. And they are forced to work a lot of overtime to meet very high daily quotas. An average Nike worker in Vietnam works 500 or more hours of overtime a year! Workers said that in some parts of the factories, each assembly line is assigned a specific daily quota, and if the workers do not meet this quota, they have to work extra hours until they meet the quota--without getting overtime pay. Workers said that if they refuse to work overtime, they'll be punished or receive a warning and that after three warnings, they'll be fired. The legal maximum for overtime is supposed to be 200 hours of overtime per year. But the VLW delegation talked to several workers who had already reached this yearly limit within the first two months of 1997!

Even if the workers got the minimum wage, they wouldn't have enough to live on. In Vietnam, three simple basic meals (like rice, vegetables and some tofu) costs about $2.00. So a worker needs about $60 a month just to eat. This means that even if a Nike worker is paid the minimum wage of $45 a month, she still won't have enough to eat--let alone afford other necessary expenses like rent, clothing, soap, etc.

So how do these Nike workers survive? Many of them said they skipped meals and ate only rice and vegetables. Most of the workers interviewed said they had lost weight since working for Nike and many complained of frequent headaches and general fatigue.

Abuse, Humiliation and
Sexual Harassment

"There's a girl being born in America and someone will give her a doll and someone will give her a ball and then someone will give her a chance."

Nike commercial

"They treat us like animals."

Worker in Vietnam, about how they're treated in Nike factories


Most of the Nike workers in Vietnam are women and there is widespread sexual harassment and abuse. A factory supervisor in one Nike plant fled the country after he was accused of sexually molesting several women workers. The Worker newspaper (Nguoi Lao Dong) reported on August 23, 1996:

"At 4:40 a.m. on the morning of August 18, 1996, Kim Sung Rat went to inspect passing an area where there were four Vietnamese female workers working in the computer embroidery room. Kim Sung Rat let two of the workers take a break and called the other two female workers, NTH and NTVP, to come to the storage area at the farthest end of the factory where there was no one working, about 50 meters away from the computer room. Here Kim Sung Rat called NTVP into the storage area and made a gesture that she should take off her shirt. After that, Rat tore the shirt of P and felt her up. P ferociously resisted, and was able to run and escape.

"At that moment Rat grabbed a hand and pulled H into the room. Again with a very obscene action, he rubbed her chest, pulls the pants zipper of H, and rubbed her private parts. After that, Rat made a sign by his finger in a very obscene manner indicating sexual intercourse. Although weaker than P, and being unable to escape nevertheless, H ferociously resisted. Being able to guess the activity of Rat in the storage room, as he had done with her, Miss P had run to call the guards, and R was caught in the act."

The Nike subcontractor, Taekwang Vina, offered bribes to the two female workers, asking them to keep quiet. One of the women told The Worker: "The company agreed to compensate us in order to smooth over this matter. Two times they gave to me and to P, each of us, an envelope full of money in order to buy us off and smooth over the action of this expert Kim. But we refused. I answered them, we will not for money sell our dignity or our honor."

Health and Safety Problems

Nike has agreed to "...only do business with partners whose workers are in all cases employed voluntarily, not put at risk of physical harm, fairly compensated, allowed the right of free association and not exploited in any way."

Athletic Footwear Association's
Statement of Guidelines on Practices of Business Partners, signed by Nike in 1993


Working on a Nike assembly line is a stressful job--workers have to keep up an inhuman pace and are threatened by abuse and physical punishment if they slow down. Many Nike workers put in 11 hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes work on Sundays as well. Workers often faint due to stress, exhaustion, heat, the smell of chemicals (glue, paint) in the factory, and malnutrition.

A September 1996 report from the Ho Chi Minh City Health Department reported that the Sam Yang Nike facility had a high concentration of toluene, reaching a level of 180 mg per sq. meter when the legal limit is 100 mg per sq. meter. And the noise level in several areas was much higher than the legal limit.

Nike factories also don't provide adequate medical facilities. The Sam Yang factory only has two nurses for approximately 6,000 workers and there is only one doctor who works for two hours a day, even though this factory operates 20 hours per day. Workers on the night shift have to go to a hospital about 30 minutes away for medical emergencies such as electric shocks, loss of fingernails, or severe cuts in their hand and fingers.

Boot Camp Assembly Lines

"The physical pain didn't last long, but the pain I feel in my heart will never disappear."

Thuy, a Nike worker who
was hit for "poor sewing."

"It sort of crept into the vocabulary. The phrase `to Nike' is essentially to take out one's frustrations on a fellow worker."

Robert Templer, journalist on CBS
48 Hours talking about beatings of
workers in Nike factories in Vietnam


Nike factories in Vietnam are run like brutal bootcamps. On the assembly line, Nike workers are constantly humiliated by verbal abuse and physical punishment. CBS News interviewed 15 women at Nike's Sam Yang's facility who said they were hit over the head by their supervisor for poor sewing and two of them ended up at the hospital.

At Nike's Tae Kwan Vina facility, supervisors forced the women to kneel down with their hands up in the air for 25 minutes and several workers had their mouths taped shut because they were talking during work. Last November, 100 workers at the Pouchen factory, a Nike facility in Dong Nai, were forced to stand in the sun for an hour over lunch because one worker had spilled a tray of fruit on an altar.

The VLW delegation visited Nike's Pouchen facility in Dong Nai on March 8, International Women's Day. And on this day, which is a national holiday in Vietnam that is supposed to honor women, they witnessed a supervisor who forced 56 women workers to run two times around the 1.2 mile perimeter of the factory in the hot sun--as punishment for not wearing regulation company workshoes.

Factory supervisors enforce cruel and sadistic rules. Like workers aren't allowed to go to the bathroom more than once every eight-hour shift. And they can't get a drink of water more than twice per shift. If workers violate these rules, they are given a warning.

The supervisors use a "card" or "hat system" to enforce the rules on drinking water and using the toilet. In order to use the facility, the supervisor must first assign a card or a hat to a worker. Wearing the hat or carrying the card, a worker is allowed to go get a drink or use the bathroom. But the number of cards or hats are limited per assembly line to only three cards for a 78-person line and four cards for a 300-person line.

Such sadistic practices, and the overall bad working conditions, have given rise to resistance. In March 1996, when 15 women workers were hit by a technician at the Sam Yang Company, 970 workers went on strike to protest the mistreatment of their fellow workers. There are frequently strikes, work stoppages and work slowdowns. And most recently, on Friday, April 26, 3,000 Nike workers at the Sam Yang factory staged a one-day strike to protest below minimum wages and bad working conditions.

A report recently released by Vietnam Labor Watch was used as a source of information for this article.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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