Nike would very much like to keep its slave labor, thank you

Nike has been lobbying Congress against a bill that would punish companies that use forced labor from China.
Nike has been lobbying Congress against a bill that would punish companies that use forced labor from China.
Image: Getty Images

It’s been sobering to know that Nike, along with many other major US companies, has used slave labor or sweatshop labor to manufacture products for decades. The practice has its own Wikipedia page, after all.


It would seem that every time the issue gets into the public eye again, Nike and the rest remain quite content to fight for the right to have their products produced by factories built on the misery and destruction of millions.

Over the weekend, it emerged that companies like Nike and Apple were lobbying Congress to water down the Uyghur Force Labor Prevention Act. The bill is one of the rare pieces of legislation that has massive support from both parties, as it danced through the House easily and it was generally thought to have about the same level of support in the Senate.

The bill would ban imported goods that are made or partly produced in Chinese factories that used Uyghur labor. Along with other ethnic minorities, the Uyghurs, from the province of Xinjiang, have been subject to a sustained “cultural ethnic cleansing” from the Chinese government, with estimates of at least a million people from the province put in reprogramming camps, then forced into factory labor. They have been forced to renounce their Muslim religion and heritage, remain under constant surveillance, and are forced to learn Mandarin. Some have been tortured under the government’s guise of rooting out religious extremism.

The bill would see companies having to prove that their supply chain does not include any factories that have forced labor, and regular audits of their supply chain. But that’s apparently too stringent for Nike, Apple, and many others.

What exactly the companies are trying to get changed remains unclear, but you would think not using slave labor would be a pretty easy thing to go along with. But this is America, where protecting multi-billion dollar profits is priority number one. There is speculation that one provision the companies are zeroing in on is the ability for the SEC to prosecute them for securities violations if they are proven to have used factories that have forced labor. Along with that goal, the companies are after an easing of compliance deadlines and transparency requirements. Consequences are not something these companies are at all familiar with.

Nike in the past has been shown to be more than just dabbing a toe in China’s forced labor market, with one factory reportedly producing 8 million pairs of shoes per year in Qingdao. Nike claims it has not lobbied against the legislation, but merely had “constructive discussions” with legislators.


What, exactly, there is to discuss is something of a mystery to any logical mind, as the two points here would be, “Yeah, slave labor is bad, “ or “Yeah, slave labor is bad but we’d still like to make stuff for cheap.” Nike has spent over $1 million on lobbying in the US this year, though that figure isn’t broken down by subject or exact pieces of legislation, according to the linked NYT article. The company has spent $400 thousand on outside lobbying firms known to be working against the bill.

Nike claims that a particular factory in Qingdao stopped adding new workers from Xinjiang in 2019, and that the factory no longer had anyone from the region employed within. However, the above independent Australian report says that last year the factory very much did have workers from Xinjiang in it, and produced over 7 million pairs of shoes for Nike in 2019.


Companies may also be trying to duck the expense of trying to prove that their supply chain does not have any forced labor, as getting a clear look at anything China doesn’t want you to get a clear look at can be notoriously difficult.

Still, any sense of “negotiating” from Nike or any other company is an extremely bad and indefensible look for a bill that seeks to keep people from being forcibly removed from their homes and having their culture wiped off the map. And yet, here Nike is doing exactly that. 

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.