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Women’s Groups Say Nike Ads Don’t Jibe With Workers’ Realities

A coalition of women’s groups has attacked Nike as hypocritical for its new television commercials that feature female athletes, asserting that something is wrong when the company calls for empowering American women but pays its largely female overseas work force poorly.

The commercials show women saying they will be stronger, healthier and more independent if they are allowed to play sports.

In a letter to Nike’s chairman, Philip Knight, the coalition, which includes the National Organization for Women and the Ms. Foundation for Women, wrote, “While the women who wear Nike shoes in the United States are encouraged to perform their best, the Indonesian, Vietnamese and Chinese women making the shoes often suffer from inadequate wages, corporal punishment, forced overtime and/or sexual harassment.”

Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority, a research and advocacy group, said: “The message in the empowerment ad is strong, but there’s a disconnect between that message and the way Nike pays and treats its workers, especially its women workers. The sweatshops, which all of us thought were a thing of the past, are back again. And just like the feminists at the turn of the century fought them, it’s incumbent on us to do the same.”

Nike’s factories have become a target for labor rights groups, which have repeatedly said that they pay too little and force workers to toil in poor conditions.

Global Exchange, a human rights group in San Francisco that has often attacked Nike, seized on the new television commercials to rally women’s groups behind a new effort to criticize the company.

The coalition is calling on Nike to let local independent monitors inspect factories in Asia and to increase pay, suggesting that its wages in Vietnam be raised to $3 a day from $1.60 a day. Vada Manager, a Nike spokesman, said the women’s groups misunderstood Nike’s role in Asia, adding that its factories in Vietnam, Indonesia and China pay considerably more than do most factories in those countries.

“Nike has created some 500,000 superior jobs with good wages around the world in developing economies,” Manager said. “The job opportunities that we have provided to women and men in developing economies like Vietnam and Indonesia have provided a bridge of opportunity for these individuals to have a much better quality of life.”

Smeal said, “We think it’s great they’re providing jobs. It’s just that the level of the wages should be increased and the working conditions improved.”

Others who signed the letter to Nike include Alice Walker, the author, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the Black Women’s Agenda and the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

The coalition’s letter said many of Nike’s workers in Vietnam could “barely afford three meals a day let alone transportation, rent, clothing, health care and much more.” But Nike officials pointed to a recent study by Dartmouth College researchers that concluded that Nike’s daily wages in Vietnam were four times the cost of obtaining three meals a day there. The study was funded by Nike.

The letter also faulted Nike for physically abusing workers, referring to an incident in Vietnam in which a manager punished workers by making them run laps in the sun.

Manager acknowledged occasional abuses and said the abusive managers had been dismissed. He added that the company’s factories had passed inspections by Andrew Young, the civil rights leader.