Copyright © 1998 BOJE. All rights reserved
Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 11 Issue 6 Date 1998 ISSN 0953-4814

Nike, Greek goddess of victory or cruelty? Women’s stories of Asian factory life

David M. Boje
Department of Management, New Mexico State University, USA

Keywords: Asia, Capitalism, Labour, Narratives, Stories

Type of Article: Case study, Theoretical with application in practice

The author suggests that beneath the glory of the goddess of victory, Asian women are struggling against the oppression of Nike’s labor practices and that while Nike portrays itself as the virtuous ambassador of Western economic development, Asian women are working for poverty wages in toxic and too often quite abusive labor camp conditions. The author uses seven components of deconstruction to unravel how Nike storytelling practices keep alternative perspectives at the margin, notably the daily reality of Asian women workers. The author posits that Nike constructs stories of Asian women, depicting them as gaining technological sophistication and work discipline in healthy, dignified and safe working conditions, while receiving a living wage that allows for discretionary savings. Yet, there is a propaganda gap between Nike’s storylines and alternative plots, interpretations, and silenced voices. The author concludes that if this gap can be analyzed, then perhaps the breach between Nike’s talk and walk in Asia can be narrowed

Quality Indicators: Readability***, Practice Implications**, Originality*, Research Implications**

“While the women who wear Nike shoes in the United States are encouraged to perform their personal best, the Indonesian, Vietnamese and Chinese women making the shoes often suffer from inadequate wages, corporal punishment, forced overtime and/or sexual harassment”, the groups said in a letter to Nike CEO Philip Knight (letter signed by groups including the National Organization of Women, and the Black Women’s Agenda, as well as Rep. Maxine Waters, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Associated Press, Reuters Ltd, October 26, 1997).


The Greek goddess of victory is how Nike symbolizes itself to millions of customers in the Western world, but to almost half a million Asian women (467,500, mostly between 16 and 24 years old, working in 350 contract factories), the Swoosh goddess shows Asian women her cruel and wicked side. Robert Templer, a journalist in Vietnam, told a 48 Hours CBS news crew, the phrase “to Nike” has crept into the country’s vocabulary, and now means “to take out one’s frustrations on a fellow worker” (CBS News 48 Hours, 1996). Is the Swoosh goddess of victory walking her talk for Asian women? My answer is that Nike, deliberately or not, uses propaganda in advertising and PR (see Nike Web site documents, 1998) to manipulate consumer and investor attitudes. The contribution of this paper is to show just how storytelling practices are used to craft plots, characters, and rationales that cover up the reality of the daily life of Asian female workers in Nike factories. The practices are often so subtle, deconstructing the story plots is like finding the palmed pea in a shell game. Beyond the deconstruction lies an opportunity for Nike to close the gap between the values it aspires to in its own 1992 Code of Conduct and its current labor practices (revised May 12, 1998). The Code articulates dignity, health and safety values, as well as mechanisms of enforcement that could become a lived reality for Asian workers. In sum, the purpose of this paper is to deconstruct Nike’s talk and walk in four areas:

  1. compare what Nike says with what it does;
  2. explore how Nike exploits Asian culture;
  3. look at why women are susceptible to Nike’s labor process; and
  4. suggest how Nike could walk its talk in Asian countries.

Before addressing these areas, we will look briefly at our approach to story deconstruction.

Story deconstruction

Deconstruction is not meant by Derrida (1978, 1981) to be defined, lest it become a rational and token blueprint of analysis steps. Rather, it is up to each analyst to craft an analysis that suits the qualities of the text and discourse. The words “discourse” and “text” refer to the system of writing, speaking, and acting and all their inter-relationships, including what is not written, spoken, or acted. To me, deconstruction can be used to read Nike “texts” both written and practiced, to decenter and otherwise unmask problematic centers. These centers have become reified or frozen, taken-for-granted and privileged. Deconstruction allows us to read various clues in the Nike texts that will set up our analysis. Here we are concerned with how Nike perspectives block access to alternative perspectives on the margin, such as the daily reality of Asian women workers. First, the analysis will hold Nike texts accountable to their own espoused concepts and assertions, rather than importing some outside frame of reference. In this way the gap between Nike philosophy and practice can be explored. Second, while a variety of deconstruction techniques could be used in evaluating Nike’s philosophy and practice, I will adapt a seven-step deconstruction process found in Boje and Dennehy’s (1994, p. 340) book, Managing in the Postmodern World because it is specifically used to decipher storytelling. The seven components of this deconstruction that will be used to analyze stories told by Nike about its labor and environmental practices in Asia are listed and reviewed below:

  1. Define the dualities - who or what is at opposite ends in the story?
  2. Reinterpret - what is the alternative interpretation to the story?
  3. Rebel voices - deny the authority of the one voice. Who is not being represented or is under-represented?
  4. Other side of the story - what is the silent or under-represented story?
  5. Deny the plot - what is the plot? Turn it around.
  6. Find the exception - what is the exception that breaks the rule?
  7. What is between the lines - what is not said? What is the writing on the wall?

Define the dualities

The problematic centers we will examine are dualities, or pairs of binary opposites, in which the terms of Nike’s arguments stand in some hierarchical relationship. For Derrida, all of Western thought forms dualities in which one term of the binary is “privileged, freezing the play of the system, and marginalizing the other member of the pair” (Powell, 1997, p. 25). I assume that Nike, like every Western organization is a tapestry of discourses woven of many binary opposites (organization-environment, male-female, top-bottom, inside-outside, bureaucratic-democratic, progressive-regressive, ordered-chaotic, racist-egalitarian, and many more). Our objective is therefore to explore the dualities in order to see how the play of the system can be unfrozen.


One place to begin with deconstruction is to reinterpret where the rhetoric of the text does not live up to its stated expectations, visions, and philosophy, and is even the opposite of what it says it does. In short, we can seek reinterpretations where the walk does not match the talk. One reinterpretation approach is to look at what Derrida terms “the logic of supplementarity.” The text sets out an originary lack, to which it then provides the supplement. The Nike talk will sometimes “supplement” practices in various ways. One way is to declare Asian people to have a “lack” or “deficit” which the institution, in this case, Nike can be said to “supplement.” For example, Nike says Asian employees lack technological sophistication and work discipline (Nike Web documents, 1998).

Rebel voices

When the dualities are examined and reinterpreted, what seem to be unproblematic choices or politically correct rhetoric, is revealed to be one voice that speaks for all other voices. The one voice keeps a system of relationships frozen and bound to the center. Rebel voices is our way (Boje and Dennehy, 1994) of telling the story from the voice and perspective of those put at the margins or silenced altogether. Stories viewed as “texts” are discourses, not merely spoken, but written, and even unwritten in scripted practices that are taken-for-granted. For example, when Nike moved most of its production from Korea, the executive story of extending economic development opportunities to Indonesia did not square with rebel voices who storied Nike’s move as a way to thwart a growing Korean workers’ right movement. Voices in dominant and official stories marginalize, repress, and ignore alternate voices and perspectives that are being taken for granted. In the case of Nike, we will show how Western discourse repeatedly marginalizes Asian voices and experience.

Other side of the story

Another analysis we shall employ is to tell the untold side of the story, by positing reversals in the hierarchy of the dualities. This reversal allows exploration of subtle variations and differences behind each of the terms to unleash many sides to Nike’s official stories. The differences allow us to look at local instances that do not fit the mold of the hierarchy presented in the story as a universal concept or principle. For example, we can explore how what Nike says it does for employee health and safety is a special case, restricted to its Beaverton, Oregon employees rather than the universe of all 550,000 Nike employees working in 33 countries, in factories located mostly in Asia. We can explore how the supposed deficits in Asian economies, such as agrarian economies with mass poverty, are what allows Nike to accumulate its wealth. Nike’s official side of the story is that they give opportunities to Asian women by paying a living wage, providing modern working conditions, and meeting industry standards. Activists, such as Boycott Nike, Global Exchange, Corporate Watch, and many others, tell another story by emphasizing how Nike has come to represent the exploitation of workers in unsafe, toxic, and low wage conditions (Elrick et al., 1998).

Deny the plot

For Ricoeur (1984), the act of plotting or “emplotment” is the grasping together of action, characters, and ends into a plot. Emplotment in stories pre-figures and forecasts possibilities, as well as restricts alternatives. Story plots for Weick (1995, pp. 128-9) are filters that can “suggest causal orders.” Annual reports, speeches, gossip, and focus groups narrate the organization and environment in ways that suggest some causal orders over others, leaving room for ideological manifestation. Both Ricoeur (1984) and White (1987) play with the relationship between story-line (beginning, middle, end), plot (comedy, romance, tragedy, satire), and argument (moral ideology). I think that denying the official plot allows us to examine the relationship between Nike ideology and Nike emplotment practice (Ricoeur, 1984):

So enframed by the story-line (a level itself split into chronicle and the chain of motifs) and the arguments and ideological implications), explanation by emplotment for White takes on a strict and limited sense, which allows him to say both what is not the whole narrative structure and yet is its pivot (Ricoeur, 1984, p. 166).

I think Nike manipulates plots in its official stories in ways that reveal propaganda practices. Lasswell (1960) defines propaganda as the expression of opinions or actions carried out deliberately by individuals or groups with a view to influencing the opinions or actions of other individuals or groups for predetermined ends and through psychological manipulations. Lerner (1951) sees propaganda as a means of altering power relations in a group by modifying attitudes through manipulation of symbols. Boehm (1989) argues that the propagandist uses broad and positive statements, presenting statements in simple and familiar language (see discussion in Elrick et al., 1998, p. 2).

Here, I think Nike carries out propaganda, more or less deliberately, to modify attitudes and actions of consumers and investors through the manipulation of story plots of Asian workers. Characters, actions and ends are manipulated in storytelling to cover up the reality of Asian working life in Nike factories. Characters such as Michael Jordan, Deion Sanders, Ken Giffey Jr and Tiger Woods have attained mythological status among Americans, especially American youth (Elrick et al., 1998, p. 10). “Hero worship has always been useful for propaganda exploitation and a quick method of gaining audience cooperation” (Thompson, 1977, p. 2). Nike stories itself as the friend of the African-American youth, using PLAY (Participating in the Lives of American Youth) to provide safe and secure playgrounds in the inner city. Yet, as Cole (1997) has argued, this plot is a thin veil for another plot, the racist and sexual exploitation of women of color in Asia, masked by the heroic success of athletes of color.

But, Nike present other plots, such as being the sole responsible agent for Asian economic development. Denying Nike plots is like chasing a moving target. CEO Phil Knight possesses an active will to power and the media and PR resources to interrupt, reinterpret, and restory meaning and plot from one Nike event to the next. There is simply a chain of restoried action, each event being reinterpreted, as the old interpretations fade away, to be replaced by new media campaigns, spectacles, slogans, and celebrity endorsements. To deny the plot is to deny that Nike’s scripting and depicting of reality is the only way to grasp or emplot these actions, characters, and ends.

Find the exception

Nike claims that it does not manufacture anything and is, therefore, not responsible for the labor practices of 450 contract firms operating in Asia. Yet, there are important exceptions to Nike’s claim that it does not control and own manufacturing, and is therefore not responsible. Even the widely criticized report of former Ambassador, Andrew Young, for being a public relations report, not a methodical study of worker abuse, reported that “while Nike does not have technical or legal ownership of these factories, or even direct control of the management, it has enormous leverage - some would argue de facto control” (Young, 1997). The duality here is Nike is not responsible for contractors.

What is between the lines

Stories are oftentimes told in fragmented bits and pieces across multi-person conversation and extended periods of time (Boje, 1991). Those with an experiential knowledge of the context are able to make sense of a very terse telling, or even read a simple nod or gesture, to give intertextual reference to the whole, as yet unverbalized story. Researchers and reporters without an adequate reading of the intertextual context are not able to read so readily between the lines. The seven approaches are used together to unfreeze the reified official Nike story and allow a resituation.


These seven tacks lead us to what I think is the often overlooked outcome of Derrida’s deconstruction, resituation. Deconstruction is often criticized for being too negative and not providing positive solutions. Yet, Derrida’s work, by my reading, attempts to “resituate” the problematized hierarchies to unpack new possibilities. The exceptions, reinterpretations, new plots, and what happens between the lines get us to a place where we can unfreeze hidden potentiality in the text. In our analysis, we seek not just to criticize Nike stories as propaganda, but to free Nike’s philosophy and practice of hierarchical incongruities, which prevent it from actually walking its talk. Boje and Dennehy (1994) call this “writing a new plot,” or “restorying the dominant hierarchies.” What would Nike be like if it closed the gap between its ideals and its practice? We turn now to our first purpose: to compare what Nike says with what it does.

Comparing Nike’s talk and walk

One place to begin this analysis is to contrast Nike’s Code of Conduct principles with its actuality. Nike claims to prevent labor exploitation by adhering to its “Code of Conduct” which was adopted in 1992 (Nike Web documents, 1998). “Nike seeks partners that share our commitment to the promotion of best practices and continuous improvement in” four principles (Nike’s revised code as of May 12, 1998). There are several dualities in Nike’s Code of Conduct which I will reinterpret and negate as follows: Nike’s Code is an espoused theory that is not matched by its enforcement; Nike’s Code is negated by the lived reality of abuse and exploitation of Asian workers (mostly female): Nike’s Code prescribes environmental and health and safety realities that are not being realized in daily practice. We shall deconstruct the four espoused principles from Nike’s Code of Conduct in turn.

Occupational health and safety, compensation, hours of work and benefits

Health and safety. We can find many exceptions to Nike’s Code of Conduct principle of health and safety enforcement. One exception is workers are oftentimes not told the sad health safety risk from long-term exposure to dust and chemical fumes in Nike’s factories nor are they trained in proper safety methods to avoid or reduce health risks. Ernst & Young has been auditing the equivalence between Nike’s principles and its actual labor practices since 1994 (Nike’s Web documents, 1998). In 1997, one of Nike’s employees went public with the discrepancies by releasing an Ernst & Young (1997) internal audit of a recently constructed Vietnam sneaker factory. The duality here is that while an Ernst & Young report revealed Nike’s equipment to be only a year or two old, Nike was skimping on ventilation fans, gloves, safety masks with charcoal filters. Nike’s workers are exposed to toxic levels of dust and carcinogens, such as toluene and benzene. A University of Utah chemical fact sheet on toluene says that a chemical cartridge mask, safety goggles with a face shield and a protective suit and polyvinyl alcohol gloves are required (http://www. The hierarchy here is equipment is important when it makes production efficient, but not when it relates to worker health and safety. The plot that cotton surgical masks and gloves provided by Nike afford a barrier to toluene is a fantasy. An exception to Nike’s claim that it abides by local healthy, safety, and environmental law, is that the Ernst & Young report (1997) found levels of toluene that exceeded Vietnam’s legal standards, workers untrained in safety procedures, inadequate protective gear, and heat levels so high that workers could not both wear the fantasy gear and breathe anyway. The marginalized voice of Asian female workers is silenced, since such chemicals cause birth defects, skin, liver, and kidney problems, as well as damage to the central nervous system of host and newborn.

Another exception to the rule of a safe working environment is noise levels. Noise levels in this Nike factory in Vietnam were reported by Ernst & Young to exceed Vietnam legal standards for decibel exposure. There are also reports of workers losing fingers and hands in machines due to poor training, lack of safety features, and cutting corners to meet quotas (http://www.{nike/reports/report1.html). Nike claims these are exceptions to the rule being exaggerated by Nike activists (Nike Web site). The other side of this story is that Nike’s Tai Kwang Vina factory was reported by Ernst & Young to have 77 percent of workers tested in one production department to have suffered respiratory problems. Half of the workers did not wear protective masks or gloves when handling dangerous chemicals and the other half wore gear that was insufficient to help anyway. Workers in China and Indonesia reported similar problems ( amrcnike.html).

Maternity leave. When a woman is found to be pregnant, her employment is quickly terminated to avoid paying maternity benefits required by law. Ernst & Young reported that even after women have visible skin rashes they cannot get transfers to less toxic departments. Pregnant women are no exception to this rule. According to AMRC/HKCIC (1997), the labor law in China protects women who become pregnant with maternity leave. But, in Nike’s Wellco plant, women are alleged to be treated with disrespect and their employment summarily terminated. There are similar reports in Athreya’s (1995) dissertation study:

[Workers] reported that the prettiest girls in each section are chosen by the Taiwanese managers as administrative assistants. The decision had only to do with looks, they claimed. Sometimes SMA [upper secondary school] grads with skills like typing were overlooked for the administrative jobs, while SD [primary school] grads would be picked! The administrative assistants are sometimes sexually harassed. The girls and another Nikomas employee (male) reported they were sometimes harassed “until they are pregnant”, at which point they are paid off and sent home.

How does Phil Knight (1997) restory the Asian workers’ maternity and general health and safety situation?:

I haven’t had a single Taiwanese or Korean shoemaker that I’ve talked to that’s been with us for a long time that hasn’t made the observation that if a shoe worker in Korea or Taiwan who had gone to sleep in the shoe factory there ten years ago and wakened in a shoe factory in Indonesia or Vietnam today, wouldn’t have thought that he or she had died and gone to heaven; the conditions have improved dramatically.

But, who would be talking to Phil Knight in this narrative? Phil Knight has never visited the Nike factories in China, Vietnam, or Indonesia. Workers are not flown to Oregon to talk to Phil. The source of this story is the Taiwanese and Korean factory owner. The story, as told by Knight, lets Nike preserve the illusion that it is a progressive, improving company bringing about the good life to its employees. Employees are depicted as complainers who do not know how good they have it.

Wages. Nike claims to pay the minimum legal wage in each Asian country or the standard industry wage rate, whichever is greater. Here we must read between the lines. Unexplored bonds exist between Nike and subcontractors. For example, since Nike dictates the percentage of wage that each subcontractor can allocate in its total production charges to Nike, Nike does control wages. In addition, as Nike bids one subcontractor off against another, cutting costs to keep a Nike contract oftentimes results in widespread wage cheating (Nguyen, 1997a, b).

Nike says that it pays a wage that exceeds community standards, but in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the site of several factories, the GDP per person is $925 per year, but Nike workers earn $564. The legal minimum wage is $45 per month, but Nike has been reported as paying, in some cases, $42 per month. Until this year, Nike also paid a training wage below $40 a month that was below minimum wage. But, whereas the law says such a wage must involve training and only be paid for six days, Nike stretched this to 120 days, often releasing workers to hire new ones so that higher wages did not have to be paid.

Forced overtime. Nike claims that it does not force workers to work overtime and that workers prefer overtime so that they can save money and elevate their life. However, between these lines is the untold story of quotas and wages set in ways to make overtime unavoidable. For example, hours of work in the Wellco factory in China are set at 11 hours per day at regular hourly wages and anything over that counts as overtime. There are examples of wage cheating. Wellco workers earn $30 to $42 per month in regular working wages, but China’s minimum wage is $1.9/day for eight hours. Wellco pays $0.19 to $0.33 per hour for overtime, but the legal overtime rate is $0.36 per hour. Normal wage rates can be set to include what by law and standard industry practice, elsewhere, would be defined as overtime. Forced overtime without overtime pay rates occurs through unrealizable quota setting on normal time. For example, the Yue Yuen and Olongapo factories set normal wage rates on 10 to 12 hour days ( Fifty percent of workers at the Yue Yen and Narity factories put in 11-12 hour days and not one of them receives overtime payment. The emplotment of characters, actions, and ends reveals ample evidence of forced overtime scenarios. Factories such as Shenzen, Zhahai, Zhogshan and Donduan set unrealistic quotas on piece work in normal time, expecting workers to make up the difference in their own time, without overtime payments (http://www.{nike/nike-news.html). There are other exceptions to the Code of Conduct:

  1. ·In Vietnam, Article 69 of VN Labor Law stipulates that “The labor user and the laborer may agree to work overtime, but not for more than four hours a day, 200 hours a year”. Forced overtime at Nike factories in Vietnam is a clear violation of this Article (
  2. ·In Indonesia, “workers have argued that Nike subcontractors have responded to a raising of the minimum wage in that country (to the equivalent of 2.40 dollars) by increasing production quotas, speeding up production lines, and requiring longer working days. Some Indonesian women have reported to Press for Change an increase in verbal abuse and slaps to make them assemble shoes more quickly” (Haq, 1996).

Nike uses the following cover story to justify overtime violations. As told by Phil Knight (1997), the story goes:

If you have a young accountant or a young reporter or a young lawyer or a young architect in the United States, he’s not working 40 hours a week. It’s the same thing in a lot of these undeveloped countries. If they want to work themselves out of poverty, they don’t have the skills to do it in the same number of hours that they can in some of these other countries.

The emplotment of characters, actions and ends in Knight’s cover story is ripe for deconstruction. An architect, lawyer, or reporter is not working for poverty or even minimum wages in the USA. While professionals are expected to put in overtime to prove themselves, the factory worker has learned his or her job in a Nike factory in less than four hours. Lawyers, we would expect, are aware of their legal rights. Nike workers have comparatively lower levels of education.

Minimizing our impact on the environment

Besides its Code of Conduct, Nike’s home page (Nike Web documents, 1998) lists the ways in which Nike is involved with environmental efforts. One could read these stories without looking at Asian practices and buy into Nike’s story that it is a responsible environmental citizen. The rhetoric sounds very progressive and enlightened. According to Nike, “a clean, healthy environment is essential not only to the future of the human race but to the future of sports. That means our business - your playground.” Nike makes four commitments in its environmental mission:

  1. To develop, through innovative design and teamwork, a sustaining business.
  2. To conserve resources, cut waste, and reduce our impact on the environment within the context of our business practices.
  3. To educate and encourage the participation of our employees, consumers, business partners and competitors in ecological endeavors.
  4. To foster responsible outdoor athleticism and stewardship to preserve and restore the planet’s outdoor playgrounds.

There are numerous statements that would lead us as readers to believe that Nike is walking the talk; that if any operation threatened the environment or was toxic to employees or communities, Nike would fix it or shut it down immediately. For example, Nike states that “vendors who agree to meet our code of conduct, exceed local and worldwide environmental requirements, research and develop earth friendly materials, and adopt measures like Nike’s Global Water Quality Guidelines.” Nike also says it adopts practices to “minimize the environmental, health and safety risks to our employees and the communities in which we operate through safe technologies, facilities and operating procedures.” This includes the reduction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air by substituting the use of water-based solvents in adhesives, primers, degreasers, and mold release agents. Nike further states, “our subcontracted factories have converted to a water-based formula in 100% of their polyurethane production processes requiring a mold releasing agent ... 64% of lasting lines and 44% of stockfit lines now use water-based adhesives.” In sum, there are numerous statements that espouse plans, goals, and actions that lead us to believe Nike is attentive to the health and safety and environmental risks of their Asian employees and communities. But, here the dualities are glaring.

Nike’s environmental walk. While the factory itself has the most up-to-date equipment, the Ernst & Young audit contradicts Nike’s public declarations about environmental stewardship made to the stockholders and the media over the past five years. Nike’s story line is that it retains an independent audit firm to report violations of its Code which can then be brought up to Code. However, the Ernst & Young audit found that 77 percent of the workers in this Bien Hoa City (Industrial Zone II near Ho Chi Minh City), South Vietnam shoe factory, suffered from respiratory problems because the Nike workplace is insufficiently ventilated and filled with carcinogens. Instead of water-based solvents and glues, as stated in the discussion of the first Code of Conduct principle, Nike is using excessive and toxic levels of toluene and benzene that exceed Vietnam’s legal standards. Also, according to the report, the release of VOCs into the atmosphere in this plant is in violation of Vietnamese laws:

Firing non-reusable garbage in combustors caused exhaustion of black smoke into the air. The company should consider that matter and accelerate measures and application to reduce black smoke.

Fortunately there are rebel voices. Corporate Watch and Sweatshop Watch photos provided by O’Rourke are available on the Web (see Sweatshop Watch) and reveal a worker burning scrap rubber in a boiler which emits pollution, violating environmental laws in Vietnam. There are also photos that agree with the Ernst & Young report that workers are exposed to toxic substances without proper safety masks and gloves. There have been similar reports from China of workers inhaling noxious fumes and dust in poorly ventilated rooms ({nike/reports/report1. html).

One of the dualities about Nike, is that what is true for its US workers is the sad opposite for its Asian employees. For example, the US Nike workers are given incentives such as Nike Bucks (vouchers worth $1 of Nike goods and services) if they will walk, run, bike, skate or car pool to work. Car-pool employees get reserved parking spots located close to Nike buildings and have secure storage areas for their bicycles. In Portland, 81 percent of Nike’s retail store employees participate in the Nike Bucks program to implement its environmental mission. Employees are trained and rewarded to cut down on wasting paper, to recycle office waste and to use non-VOC cleaning products. But in Asia, workers receive no training and no Nike Bucks to modify their environmental practices. Employees work at significant risk to their health and safety. When Nike refers to its efforts to reduce environmental damage, it does not include Asian employees and communities in its practices. Recycling office paper and car-pool programs in Beaverton, Oregon are token environmental façades compared to the toxic conditions suffered by half a million Asian workers.

Management practices that recognize the dignity of the individual, the rights of free association and collective bargaining, and the right to a workplace free of harassment, abuse or corporal punishment

Corporal punishment. Nike negates the dignity of the worker in repeated and widely reported acts of corporal punishment. Punishment for poor work includes cleaning toilets, being slapped, getting locked in a cage in the company compound, having your mouth taped shut, being forced to kneel for long periods with their arms in the air, or baking in the sun (Campaign for Labor Rights, 1996a). Some punishments are “senseless,” such as apologizing to every worker in the section or running around the factory compound yelling “the boss is good² ( sweating.html, July 1995). Here is a short list of some of the more widely reported stories:

  1. ·In 1996, a supervisor at the Korean Sam Yang Co. factory, a Nike sub-contractor, was convicted for hitting 15 Vietnamese women team leaders over the head with the upper sole of a Nike shoe (Nguyen, VLW Report, 1997b). On September 16, 1996, Phil Knight in his stockholder’s speech rewrote the incident by saying one woman was struck on the arm by her supervisor (Nike Web documents, 1998).
  2. ·In 1996 CBS News filmed a 48 Hours segment on the 15 workers who were beaten with a Nike upper sole. The women also accused their factory bosses of sexual harassment (CBS News 48 Hours, 1996).
  3. ·A supervisor at the Taiwanese factory Pou Chen Corp. found himself before a Vietnamese tribunal at the end of March for forcing 56 women workers to run 4km around the factory for not wearing regulation work shoes. Twelve of the women workers had to be taken to hospital (ICFTU, 1997).
  4. ·On International Day, March 8, 1997, 56 women at the Nike factory, Pouchen, were forced to run around the factory grounds: 12 of them fainted and were taken to the hospital by their friends. This was particularly painful to the Vietnamese because it occurred on International Women’s Day, an important holiday when Vietnam honors women (
  5. ·Forty-five women were forced by their supervisors to kneel down with their hands up in the air for 25 minutes (
  6. ·In the case of Ms Taska, her supervisor gave her nine cuts with a knife because she planned to participate in a strike for better safety conditions.
  7. ·On November 26, 1996, 100 workers at the Pouchen factory, a Nike site in Dong Nai, were forced to stand in the sun for half an hour for spilling a tray of fruit on an altar which three Taiwanese supervisors were using. One employee (Nguyen Minh Tri) walked out after 18 minutes, and was then formally fired. Mr Nguyen Minh Tri was reinstated after intervention by local labor federation officials. Mr Tri, however, has declined to work for Pouchen (http://www. boycottnike. com).
  8. ·In Vietnamese, phoi nang means sun-drying. Employees deemed in need of a bit of discipline are forced to stand in the tropical sun, which packs a wallop unfamiliar to those from more temperate climates (Manning, 1997).

Bathrooms. In one Nike Indonesia factory, there are seven toilets for 10,000 workers. In Vietnam, workers must ask their supervisor for a special hat to wear to signal they are going to the bathroom. And there are only a hat or two for every 200 workers.

Workers cannot go to the bathroom more than once per eight-hour shift and they cannot drink water more than twice per shift (http://www.

Sexual abuse. One thing about Nike’s public relations machine is that it is able to write its own stories to reinterpret stories told by Asian women. One approach to reinterpretation by Nike is to downplay sexual assault to a simple misunderstanding:

By September 1996, Vietnamese newspapers had published many articles about abuses at Nike factories in Vietnam. But at a shareholders’ meeting at Nike’s headquarters, Mr Knight tried to play down a sexual abuse incident involving a supervisor and two women workers. Mr Knight said that the incident was just a misunderstanding when a night watchman was trying to wake up these two workers. He ignored the fact that the two women told a horrifying story to the Vietnamese press of an attempted rape by the factory supervisor. This supervisor skipped town before local authorities could put him on trial (Nguyen, 1997a).

Several workers told me that a Korean manager allegedly attempted to rape two women workers last year, and then fled the country. This was widely reported in the Vietnamese press (O’Rourke, 1997; also reported in The Worker Newspaper, 1996; and by Hung and Lam, 1997).

When the perpetrator is sent out of the country and the woman is bribed to keep silent, only the rebel voices are left to tell the story:

In the sexual molestation case, according to the news reports, factory managers tried to buy the young women’s silence, and the Korean manager fled to Seoul after charges were filed against him (

We have to ask, is sexual abuse the rule or the exception when it occurs in broad daylight?

Even in broad daylight, in front of other workers, these supervisors try to touch, rub or grab their buttocks or chests. One supervisor told a female factory worker that it is a common custom for men in his country to greet women they like by grabbing their behinds (

Verbal abuse. Reports abound that Asian workers are verbally abused and sexually harassed by supervisors. The language is both racist and abusive, with the “F... you and move,” “hurry up you stupid B....” or “dog,” along with hitting workers. This has been documented in Fengtay, Nikomas and Narity factories (

Wages below the legal minimum for the first three months, strictly controlled access to toilet facilities, a maximum of two glasses of water per working day, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and corporal punishment are all practices denounced in these factories (ICFTU, 1997).

The female workers report that the Korean managers often yell at them, call them “dog,” etc. There have also been instances of Koreans slapping the female workers on the behind with an outsole if they have made a mistake. They said they hated the Korean managers, but no one was willing to protest the treatment because they were afraid of being fired (Athreya, 1995).

How does Nike respond to these repeated accusations? The story Nike tells has a rather simple plot. Phil Knight sets up his story by pointing out that Nike employs over 500,000:

...That’s a community slightly smaller than the city of Portland. And you do not see the Portland mayor being charged with abusing the citizenry whenever there is a crime...I would suggest that you hold us to the same standards (Knight, 1997).

This is a plot we can easily deny. Phil Knight is a CEO, not a Mayor. Nike is global enterprise, not a city. A city prosecutes crimes while Phil Knight assumes away responsibility for crimes of Nike male managers against Asian women. Nike supplements the Mayor’s story with stories depicting Nike to be the victim of well-financed fringe activists led by Global Exchange that re-circulate exaggerated tales to victimize Nike (Knight, 1998; Nike Web documents).

The principle that decisions on hiring, salary, benefits, advancement, termination or retirement are based solely on the ability of an individual to do the job

Child labor. Nike, in this claim, attests that it no longer subscribes to child labor. Yet, Nike factories in China, Indonesia, and Pakistan continue to hire child labor. A recent study in China found that Wellco and Yue Yuen hire workers who are 14 and 15 years old. They work in the cutting, sewing, and handwork departments. The minimum age set by Nike’s press releases is 18 years old ( In Pakistan, children are sold through brokers to work in Nike factories:

In many cases children sold through brokers to work, whether that work is in a Nike soccer ball factory, a rug plant or textile mill or in a brothel matters little. In fact the wages differ little as well whether one works in a factory or a brothel (Plawiuk, 1996).

Cicih Sakaesik was a Nike worker in Jakarta, Indonesia from 1989 to 1993. As she glued thousands of Nike shoes, she felt weak from the stench of the glue and the heat of a poorly ventilated building. Campaign for Labor Rights (1996b) paid her way to speak in several North American cities. During a visit to NikeTown, someone showed Ms Sakaesik a poster. “Go ahead,” the poster proclaimed, “demand a raise. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.” Assuming the poster was printed by someone in support of Nike workers, she was amazed to learn it was part of a Nike advertising campaign. Ms Sakaesik said:

They would never say that on their ads in Indonesia. There, they just put the name, Nike, and the picture of the sports star. There is no text in the Indonesian ads. When we worked in the factory, we thought “Just do it!” meant “Work harder and don’t question authority” (Campaign for Labor Rights, 1996b).

The other side of this story is bigger than just the Nike Corporation. Nike is just the flagship of Western capitalism, now sailed overseas to reenact a very old story, the “satanic mills” of nineteenth century USA. The old mills were unbearably hot, full of noxious fumes and dust, talking during work was prohibited, beatings by security goons was frequent, and the rush of the assembly line cost workers fingers and hands in unsafe machines (http:// Indeed, given the flagrant and repeated violations, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Nike’s Code of Conduct is a public relations stunt to divert attention from its labor practices. We turn next to a look at the conditions in Asian culture that makes exploitation so attractive.

Exploiting Asian culture

Capitalism thrives on converting what Marx terms “unproductive” labor into productive labor. To the capitalist, labor that is not wage earning is unproductive. To capitalists, countries transitioning from agricultural to industrial have abundant cheap labor possibilities:

As the urban metropolitan areas in these countries develop a new industrial base traditional rural agricultural economies in these countries are destroyed. Traditional subsistence farming and manufacturing are destroyed and families are forced to send their families to the city to work (Plawiuk, 1996).

The World Bank estimates that half of all Vietnamese live below international standards for poverty. Like Vietnam, China and Indonesia offer Nike havens where there is ample poverty for low wage, low enforcement of labor and environmental laws, and a government that will control the media and look the other way.

Using subcontract firms for its global production, Nike can claim that it does not do any manufacturing and is therefore not responsible for labor practices. It is the subcontractors that exploit labor with poverty wages, sexual assault, toxic conditions, military discipline, and corporal punishment. Yet in its principal-agent relationship, Nike set the terms and conditions. As we reverse the duality, reinterpretations and exceptions arise to the supposed rule that Nike does not have control over its subcontractors. These exceptions are found in Nike’s own Web documents. Nike sets the terms of the payment, the methods of operation, as well as the Code of Conduct for its contractors. Nike has a penalty system of fines for contractors who repeatedly violate its code and has said it dismissed four, as yet, unidentified Indonesian contractors. Nike insists that “the fine is set by Nike, and Nike alone” (Nike Website). Nike employs 1,000 employees whose task is to monitor contractors for Nike policy violations. The AMRC/HKCIC (1997) report by labor activists argues:

...poor conditions in the factory are not simply the result of having a particularly harsh factory owner. It is actually the multinationals, not the subcontractors, that ultimately set the pace of production and the wages of the workers.

Nike’s other story line is to claim that Nike did not invent the labor conditions in Asia. Nike thinks it is ethnocentric to apply the morals, customs, and values of the West to Asia. The other side of this story is that Nike is applying the morals, customs, and values of nineteenth-century Western capitalism to Asian countries. Women in Asian countries are particularly valued by Western capitalism. Another attractive side of Nike’s chosen countries for factories is that China, Indonesia and Vietnam governments do not allow independent labor organizations to form. Law bans such activities. China and Indonesia each have only one recognized union that is supervised by the government. Any union representation is oftentimes hand-picked by the factory managers.

Why women are susceptible

It is no accident that Nike prefers to hire young, unmarried, rural women (the average is 85 percent female in Nike’s Asian factories). Traditional Vietnamese culture, for example, is perfectly structured to create females for capitalist exploitation. Activists such as Global Exchange charge that Nike hires these women because they are less apt to protest against exploitative labor practices (

Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism are religions fundamental to an Asian tradition where elders and male authority are respected and revered. Confucianism emphasizes honor, obedience, and obligation to one’s parents. Confucian followers ascribe higher status to men than women, and to sons over daughters. It is the man who governs the family, government, farm, and now the factory. Buddhism teaches that Nirvana, or enlightenment, is attained through right living, belief, and peace of mind in meditation. In Vietnam, southern Hinayana Buddhists believe only monks and nuns can attain enlightenment, while the northern Mahayana believe laymen can also attain enlightenment (Dixon et al., 1998, p. 12). Taoism teaches women thrift, humility, and compassion along with simplicity, patience and contentment. And, important to each of these religions is status acquired through age and wisdom, rather than wealth accumulation. “Vietnamese tend to be very polite and guarded. Sparing other’s feelings is considered more important than factual truth” (Dixon et al., 1998, p. 12).

Until the recent transition from rural to factory life in Vietnam, it was the man who worked outside the home (Karnow, 1983). This transformation is disrupting village life, when family members are expected to take care of elder parents until they die. Rice production economies require collective farming and a strong sense of rural community tied to village life. As village life is disrupted, food production is also being transformed. At the same time, workers learn cultural values that help capital exploitation. Elders, as leaders of their families, are respected and sought after for their advice. The young are expected to obey and respect their elders (Karnow, 1983). They are also expected to send money home from Nike wages to support the rural family (Plawiuk, 1996).

Life in the rice field for the Asian female is boring and fatiguing. This makes it good training for factory life in the big city. As Asian women migrate to the cities, the young are finding new freedoms. “They are free to get drunk, free to stay out all night, to fornicate, and drop out of school” (Dixon et al., 1998, p. 13). Where the Government controls the press, TV and even bookstore selections, those with computers and VCRs are getting their news from the Internet and video. Those who cannot afford to stay in school are lining up for Nike, Reebok, and Adidas factory jobs.

In sum, religious and rural family tradition that fosters subservience to male authority, passive resistance to male domination, and an ethic of hard work in harsh conditions have equipped a generation of females to fit perfectly into capitalist wage employment. The migration from rural to city, combined with weak economies and governments repressive of media and unions, have fostered a situation where paying bribes to officials to overlook wage, health and safety, and environmental regulations and standards is also an inducement to attracting Nike production. The combined result of tradition and repression is a class of women who are docile, non-rebels, low-wage earners, hard working, and raised culturally to tolerate male domination, unsafe conditions, verbal and sexual abuse. Next, we examine what can be done to enable Nike to walk its talk.

How Nike could walk its talk

Here we resituate Nike. Nike has an idealized Code of Conduct, which it could seek to implement. The fantasy document could become reality. Rather than 1,000 employees engaging in public relations to cover the gaps between espoused and actual conduct, Nike could commit those resources to making the conduct real. The public relations windfall alone could be enormous, as Nike provides a living wage and a higher quality of working life to almost half a million Asian women. Nike could implement its Ernst & Young reports instead of sealing and burying them in some executive file drawer for the past five years. Nike’s Code of Conduct says that there is enforcement, which begins by a Nike on-site visit to inspect factory conditions before initiating a subcontract (Mickle et al., 1998). Nguyen (1997b), of Vietnam Labor Watch, claims that there are not enough Nike “expatriates or employees in all of Nike’s various departments in Vietnam to insure that Nike contractors are complying with the Code of Conduct on a day-to-day basis.” This may mean that the 1,000 monitors could be re-deployed to train workers in their rights. Nike could actually train workers to know their rights in the Nike Code of Conduct. But, this would mean that Nike executives would have to actually listen to worker reports from the factory floor and take meaningful action, instead of doing publicity blitzes.

Nike has the power and incentives to get subcontractors to enforce its Code of Conduct. The problem is that Nike started out by ignoring its Code and subcontractors expect this scenario to continue uninterrupted. Nike claims that it does not stand in the way of labor organizing, but Nike could do more. Nike could pressure governments to recognize employee-organized unions (Mickle et al., 1998, p. 16).

Phil Knight (1998) just recently agreed to abide by OSHA health and safety standards and to engage NGOs to participate in monitoring Nike factory conditions. This is a good first step, if taken, to end boot camp conditions in Nike factories. But, the initiative should also include wage increases from poverty to living wages.


As the goddess of victory swooshes its propaganda across the face of Asian women, Nike practices violate the dignity and human rights espoused in its own Code of Conduct. But, Nike’s goddess is blind, she cannot see the abuse, because she lives inside a world created from advertising glitz, where telling tall tales is a way of life. Deconstructing Nike’s story practices reveals that Asian women are working in toxic and oftentimes sexually and physically abusive conditions, for poverty wages. Nike’s official stories use plot and duality to keep the voices and stories of Asian women workers at the margin. Beneath Nike stories of Asian economic opportunity for country and worker lies a propaganda machine covering the gap between talk and walk. Our deconstruction has sought to highlight a few ways in which Nike manipulates consumer and investor attitudes by playing with characters, plots and espoused ideals, substituting these for real. In the case of Nike, we have shown how Western discourse repeatedly marginalizes Asian voices and experience, rather than make fundamental changes in labor practices. But, Nike could become more than exploitative capitalist accumulation propaganda.

Propaganda practices could be traded in for deliberate changes in labor practices. This would require that official manipulative story plots be surrendered so that the voices of workers can be heard and real changes in labor practices can be addressed. If Nike continues to play its shell game of saying each new case of abuse is an exception, a part of the road to a country’s economic development, or Nike does not control the practices of contractors, I think that consumers and investors will see through the ruse.

If Nike can unfreeze its approach to storytelling, it can bring official accounts in line with women’s lived accounts of factory life. In this way, Nike’s Code of Conduct would become a way to achieve continuous human rights improvement. Workers in Asia could be as valued as workers in Beaverton, Oregon. Nike does not have to skimp on worker items like ventilation fans, bathrooms, safety gear and living wage. Nike could actually substitute safe chemicals for toxic chemicals, lower decibel levels, and filter the dust from the air. Quotas would be lowered and living wages could be enacted, to bring claims in line with action. Maternity leaves could be granted and workers experiencing health side-effects from Nike production could be relocated to safer areas without adding dramatically to the price of each shoe.

While Nike denies it has influence over subcontractors, the evidence of Nike’s enforcement apparatus, its control over contract terms, and its legion of monitors would render such a claim fallacious. The Nike game rules that lead to wage cheating and environmental law violation by subcontractors can be changed.

Nike could make its ideals come true. But, first we must critically read Nike stories to see the gap between responsible world citizen and Nike performance. I think Asian workers should be given Nike Bucks (vouchers worth $1 of Nike goods and services) every time they are forced to do overtime, hit by a supervisor, inhale one breath of dust, or made to stand in the hot sun in punishment. This would give economic incentive for Nike to treat Asian workers with the same dignity and respect that Nike treats its Oregon workers.

Nike shareholders are reaping gains while Nike subcontract managers are selecting female workers for sexual abuse. Young girls are still being sold into bondage in Nike factories. This is a greedy exploitation of Asian culture by Western investors. Crimes against the women of Asia can no longer be swept away by public relations tales to pull the wool over the eyes of eager investors. True, Nike did not invent Asian poverty, the role of women in Asian society, or government restrictions against unions. But, Nike is applying Western capitalist values to profit from the misery of another race. The duality of Western and Asian Nike employee reveals a hierarchy of race as well as gender. Asian countries are supplying low paid female labor, what Braverman (1974) calls an industrial reserve army, to support Western capital accumulation. The accumulation of wealth at Nike is linked to sustaining the misery.

Think of the public relations windfall if Nike would just pay a living wage and provide a tolerable quality of working life. Nike, live up to your rhetoric and end boot camp conditions in Nike factories. Otherwise, I must conclude that the sustained cultural domination of Asian factory workers by a Taylorist production system is the racist act of a colonial trader, subcontracting with Korean and Taiwanese firms to manage slave factory production.


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