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Nike workers don’t earn 20 cents an hour or work 80 hours a week

Factory workers for the shoe and apparel company Nike make just 20 US cents an hour and work up to 80 hours a week, claims a meme shared on Facebook in South Africa.

It shows women working an assembly line covered with rows of Nike shoes. The text reads: “These factory workers (which are 80% female) are making Nikes 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?”  

US fact-checking organisation Snopes investigated the meme in September 2018 and found it had both true and false elements.

Nike endorsement deal sparks scrutiny

In 2016, American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick joined ongoing protests against racial injustice in the US – particularly the deaths of black people at the hands of police. He kneeled during the US national anthem before several National Football League matches. “Taking the knee” was seen as criticism of the US, and Kaepernick was ousted from the NFL.  

On 4 September 2018 Nike announced an endorsement deal with Kaepernick. This caused renewed scrutiny of the company’s  labour practises. Some thought that Kaepernick was being hypocritical by criticising injustice against black people in the US while agreeing to be an ambassador for Nike, which had a historical reputation for treating its workers poorly. 

The day after the deal was announced, conservative US political commentator Ryan Fournier tweeted:

The Facebook meme is a screenshot of Fournier’s tweet.

Photo of Nike workers in Vietnam – from 2005

The photo in the tweet is real. It shows workers at a Nike factory in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was taken in 2005 by a photographer from US news agency Associated Press

Snopes asked Fournier for the source of his claims but did not get a response. But they traced the pay rate of 20 cents an hour to reports from the mid-1990s. In 1996, TV broadcaster CBS investigated working conditions in Nike factories in Vietnam. CBS interviewed a worker who worked six days a week and earned US$42 a month – the equivalent of about 20 cents an hour. 

A 1997 study by the Transnational Resource and Action Center looked into working conditions at the Tae Kwang Vina factory in Vietnam, which employed 9,200 workers. It found that although the factory was required to pay a minimum wage of $40 a month with annual increases based on worker’s skills, Nike was giving “much lower” increases. 

The study also found that some night-shift workers worked 10.5 hours a day, six days a week. This could work out to 700 or more overtime hours a year, well above the Vietnamese legal maximum of 200 overtime hours a year. 

In 2003, a report by the World Bank found that Nike was violating Vietnam's environmental and labour laws by exposing 10,000 workers (85% of them female) at the Tae Kwang Vina factory to toxic solvents and routinely forcing them to work above the legal overtime limit.

The public criticism prompted Nike to introduce a code of conduct at its Vietnamese factories, implement US labour laws there and bring in health and environmental protections for workers. 

Pay of 61 to 89 cents an hour in 2016

Wages for Vietnamese Nike workers have since increased. The Clean Clothes Campaign, an organisation which advocates on behalf of workers in the garment industry, told Snopes “depending on where the factory is, workers would receive between $118 and $171 a month for a normal working week. However… it’s not uncommon for the employers to withhold some money and to force overtime which decreases the wage per hour.” 

That meant Nike workers in Vietnam earned 61 to 89 cents an hour in 2016, based on a working week of 48 hours. But the Clean Clothes Campaign pointed out that the effects of inflation and an increased cost of living in Vietnam since the 1990s meant the increase in the hourly wage was not that significant.   

Snopes asked Nike for a response to the claims in Fournier’s tweet. They were referred to the company’s code of conduct and the Nike manufacturing map. According to the map, 79.4% of the 463,561 Nike workers in Vietnam are women, as of February 2019. Women seem to make up the majority of workers in most Nike factories around the world.  

Maximum 60 hours of work a week in 2017

Nike’s 2017 code of conduct says “the regular work week shall not exceed 48 hours” and that employers should “allow workers at least 24 consecutive hours of rest in every seven day period”. All overtime work must be agreed to and should not exceed 60 hours a week. 

Nike requires that workers are paid at least the minimum wage required by country law. Workers must also be provided with benefits such as holidays, leave and severance pay when employment ends. 

While it is true that factory workers in Vietnam earned 20 cents an hour in the 1990s and often worked between 70 and 80 hours a week, the pay has since increased and the rules on working hours strengthened. 

Fournier was correct to say 80% of Nike factory workers are women but this figure is specific to Vietnam. – Africa Check


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