Women’s empowerment sells. You-go-girl messages have been used to push everything from shoes to body wash to cars, and it certainly sells in the sports world. In February, Nike released its “Dream Crazier” commercial, featuring female athletes like Simone Biles, Serena Williams, and Megan Rapinoe, and an inspirational voiceover: “…a woman running a marathon was crazy. … A woman boxing was crazy. A woman dunking? Crazy. Coaching an NBA team. Crazy. A woman competing in a hijab, changing her sport, landing a double cork 1080, or winning twenty-three grand slams, having a baby, and then coming back for more? Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, and crazy.”
Nike’s been at it for a while now. In fact, my interest in the brand was originally sparked several years ago when I learned about the “girl empowerment” programs that the Nike Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm (now the Nike Community Impact Fund), was promoting in emerging economies like Uganda and Ethiopia. These girl-power programs had made Nike quite popular among women’s groups and development organizations. Was this the same Nike that in the mid-1990s had been attacked by feminists and labor activists for the widespread abuse in its overseas factories? What about the women making Nike sneakers and T-shirts today? How empowered did they feel? In 2016 those questions took me to Vietnam, where I learned that, contrary to Nike’s girl-power image, in reality its factories were still contradicting the freedom and empowerment its commercials celebrate.
I interviewed Hao and three of her colleagues on a hot afternoon in January 2016. I met the workers with an interpreter outside the single room Hao shares with her husband and children, in an industrial area close to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s largest city. We sat in a circle on the floor outside and talked about the women’s work at a shoe factory that supplies sneakers to Nike.
Hao’s story was typical of the eighteen workers, employed at five different Nike suppliers, whom I interviewed that month. She was exhausted by long days, immense work pressure, daily humiliations when her work was deemed too slow or faulty, and the stress of trying to make ends meet on low wages. By the end of the month, Hao often had to borrow money to pay her bills. “I sell lottery tickets during my lunch break,” she said, to help pay off debts. This was a risky undertaking, however: “If my boss catches me selling them, he might fire me.” Hao had sent her five-year-old daughter to her family in northern Vietnam because she couldn’t afford to care for her.
They weren’t allowed to leave after their shifts when deadlines were tight, even though they had children to pick up from school.
The factory floor is the opposite of empowering. The women showed me wage stubs and factory rule books that revealed illegal wage penalties, excessive hours, and wages four times lower than what they needed to give their families a decent quality of life. Overtime was routine, they said, not voluntary. They weren’t allowed to leave after their shifts when deadlines were tight, even though they had children to pick up from school. Of the ten mothers with young children that I spoke with, six had sent at least one child away out of financial desperation and saw the child only once or twice a year. These women are caught in a Catch-22 of having their families torn apart in an effort to keep them together.
When I confronted Nike with my findings and asked them to respond to the women’s grievances, they didn’t seem surprised or particularly concerned. “Transformation takes time,” they wrote me, suggesting that, while the jobs were not dignified or well-paid – or up to the standards of their “empowerment” campaigns – the labor standards in Vietnam’s garment sector would eventually evolve to those in the developed world.
Nike is only one of many multinational brands and retailers, including Gap and H&M, that take part in a system designed to push down labor standards. Nike selected Vietnam, a country whose laws forbid independent labor rights groups and strikes, as its primary sourcing destination. The grievances and powerlessness of Hao and her colleagues are not an aberration but a calculated outcome of a system designed to repress workers’ struggle for dignified jobs. By prioritizing low production costs and doing business with countries with the weakest labor protections, brands like Nike, Zara, Gap, and H&M create the high-pressure, disempowering environment described by Hao and her colleagues.
As the history of America’s own garment industry shows, improvements in labor conditions have never “eventually evolved.” Unions and strikes are vital. One of the most famous and effective strikes, the “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand,” was led by Ukrainian immigrant Clara Lemlich in New York City in November 1909. Work had become unbearable for tens of thousands of workers, many of them teenage girls, toiling in sweatshops on the Lower East Side. Wages were as low as four dollars per week, work weeks exceeded sixty-five hours, factories were dangerous and unsanitary, and sexual harassment was rampant. Union organizers like Lemlich knew that the only way to demand a fair share of the profits and force their bosses to improve factory conditions was to use their collective power as workers to shut the industry down.
And that’s what they did: for nearly three months, between twenty and thirty thousand garment workers braved the freezing New York winter and walked the streets of Lower Manhattan to demand what they deserved. As the feminist labor historian Annelise Orleck describes in her study, Common Sense and a Little Fire, the bosses, backed by the city’s police, took all kinds of cruel and violent measures against the strikers. Seven hundred women were arrested during the strike, and city officials portrayed them as unruly, immoral, and ungrateful. Lemlich herself was arrested seventeen times and six of her ribs were broken by police clubs.
But, backed by their union, wealthy allies, and sympathetic media coverage, the women persisted. Contrary to what male union leaders thought possible at its outset, the strike achieved many of its goals, including union recognition, a fifty-two-hour workweek, and wage increases. The strike’s success proved that collective action in the garment industry was both possible and effective, and set a wave of garment strikes in motion in other cities.
The Uprising’s success played an important role in improving factory conditions in the industry. But its tragic failure played an important role as well. Several factory owners, including Max Blanck and Isaac Harris of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, refused the strikers’ demands to fix safety hazards. On March 25, 1911, a year after the conclusion of the Uprising, a fire erupted on the eighth floor of the building, and one hundred forty-six Triangle workers, many of whom had participated in the Uprising, burned or jumped to their deaths.
The deaths of the Triangle fire and the wave of strikes triggered by the Uprising galvanized the labor movement and forced nationwide improvements in working conditions. As Annelise Orleck writes, Lemlich and her organizing colleagues “were at the center of a storm that by 1919 had brought half of all women garment workers into trade unions.” Later, much of the progressive labor legislation President Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted was created or inspired by female labor rights advocates who had witnessed, or lost friends to, the fire. Improved conditions were not produced by inevitable evolution, but by the blood and courage of New York’s garment workers.