Talking to Nike’s Knight About ‘Entrepreneurial Edge,’ Worker Abuses Are Beyond the Pale
USA Today (4/26/16) featured what the paper promoted as a “rare interview” with Nike founder Phil Knight. He offers his opinion that “international trade agreements benefit both nations, always”—the paper doesn’t correct him when he overstates US GDP growth since NAFTA by more than 300 percent—and his worry that the United States might be losing some of what’s called “the entrepreneurial edge that propelled him and fueled Nike.” Students he meets, Knight laments, seem “more pessimistic.”
Billionaires whose wealth was built on the work of people in less developed countries making cents an hour in notoriously abusive conditions—practices only curtailed after years of activism, much of it by students the company did its best to ignore—well, their concerns about the pessimism of today’s youth warrant a side-eye on any day.
But as it happens, Nike, which was for a moment if not a success story, at least an example of a company responding to sweatshop activism, was revealed just five years ago to be falling far short of the standards it set for itself in the furor of the 1990s—the period USA Today’s Susan Page lets Knight pass off as “early missteps” about which, she tells us, he’s “still sounding a bit aggrieved.” (“We got a lot of negative press.”) Just a few months ago, Nike announced that it will no longer allow its factories to be monitored by the Worker Rights Consortium, leading to outcry from United Students Against Sweatshops—a key player in pushing independent monitoring.
Noi Supalai worked for years in a Nike factory in Thailand; on her spring US speaking tour, she talked about what that’s like: 16 hour or longer days, production deadlines such that workers had to take turns going home to shower, and then, when targets weren’t hit, Nike barring the factory from paying them. They formed a union and set a meeting with Nike representatives, who never showed up. (Turns out they’d cut and run.) Supalai’s story is easy to find in college papers. Just don’t look for it in USA Today.