The global corporations that dominate the global economy are organized to minimize risk and avoid blame. They create complex supplier chains, strategic alliances, and networked production schemes that put distance between them and the production process; they employ contract labor to avoid long term commitments to workers; and they influence public discourse and public policy by financing think tanks, supporting business associations and lobbyists, and contributing to political campaigns.
If the products or services they sell are produced under sweatshop conditions, well, it’s not their fault, they don’t own the factories. If the business associations, the think tanks, and the political factions that they finance promote destructive social policies, well, it’s not their fault, these are membership organizations and they can’t be aware of everything that’s done in their name. Sometimes this gets them in trouble.
Case in point: Nike. Nike-- with hundreds of contractors in China producing for the domestic and export market-- has spent a great deal of energy in recent years sprucing up its operations and its image. By most accounts the company has been successful in improving working conditions in its supplier firms. So when both our report, Behind the Great Wall and a New York Times article, documented opposition by US based corporations to Chinese labor reforms and named Nike as a company that lobbied against the reforms “through the American Chamber of Commerce”, Nike bristled at being singled out. They claimed privately to a colleague that since they knew nothing about the proposed law they could not be accused of opposing it. We believe them. After all, this is exactly how companies avoid blame: they finance business associations to lobby for them. This gives them an arms length relationship to the grubby world of politics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cut it for a company that claims to adhere to socially responsible business practices. (Click here for some interesting comment on this from sportswriter Henry Abbott.)
It may well be that it is unrealistic to think all of the members of business and lobbying organizations like the American Chamber of Commerce will agree or even be informed on every issue, but companies like Nike should be informed on important issues and speak out when they disagree with the organization’s positions. Silence is consent.
If Nike did not oppose the new law, they said nothing publicly to disassociate themselves from AmCham’s letter of complaint. Until now. Recently, Nike officials have finally gone public with their support for expanded Chinese labor rights. We’ll sort of.
According to reporter Helen Jung of the Daily Oregonian:
Nike does not oppose the proposed legislation (although it is a member of the business group), said spokesman Alan Marks. "We absolutely support the direction of strengthening legal protections for workers" including "stronger worker dialogue" to improve factory conditions, he said. However, Nike is not planning to take a public stand on the law, leaving it to its contract factories to offer their thoughts on the changes if they want.”
So here we go again. On the one hand, Nike says it does not oppose the proposed legislation—thus breaking ranks with AmCham. On the other hand, Nike says it will not make any public statements, beyond what company officials have already said, in support of the proposed law. Instead, they will leave that up to their suppliers. It seems Nike not only outsources the production of its products, it also outsources its social responsibility.