Nike turns its back on Cambodian workers

Nike’s Annual General Meeting will be held on September 12. The brand will likely dazzle its shareholders with the results achieved since its June announcement of a 10 per cent annual revenue increase up to US$51.2bn.

In the months since, Nike has been on show at the FIFA Women’s World Cup as the sponsor of almost half of the participating teams, likely bringing in profits to match the tournaments unprecedented popularity. However, despite Nike using the World Cup to spread messages of women’s empowerment, Cambodian women workers who made Nike’s clothes have been calling on the sportswear brand to pay them the US$1.4m they have been owed for over three years.

In July 2020, the Violet Apparel garment factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia factory closed suddenly, leaving 1,284 workers stranded and owed US$1.4m in severance compensation. Most of them were women. The Violet Apparel factory is owned by the Ramatex Group. According to testimony from workers, they manufactured Nike apparel through a subcontract from other Ramatex factories. Nike continues to be one of Ramatex’s biggest customers and has a responsibility to ensure these workers are paid what they are owed.

In recent years, it has become dangerous for Cambodian workers to speak out against exploitation and abuse. In desperation, many Violet Apparel workers have been outspoken despite the consequences. Below, one of the workers shares what she would like Nike’s investors, customers, and Board of Directors to know about Nike.

(Some of the below text has been edited for clarity and length. The original interview was conducted in Khmer with assistance from Action Aid Cambodia.)

“I want to say that I know that Violet Apparel made clothes for Nike because we made shirts, shirts and pants. We made Nike [products] because of our connection to our sister factories, Olive and Berry. Before, when the factory was still open, we could resolve our problems. But now, since the factory’s closure my daily spending has become difficult; I don’t have any income and my current position is difficult. The factory didn’t provide proper pay following the labour laws. Honestly, it’s the bank loans, my siblings’ education, and my parents are old and need money – so to sum it up, I’m the sole provider.

“I have my mom and dad and my two young siblings that are still studying that I need to provide for, which hasn’t been an issue until the factory’s closure. Although our daily spending has decreased, not spending any money at all isn’t an option because we need to spend for necessities, also my mother is old and has an illness. I spend money on food daily, about 30,000 riel (approximately US$7.50). That’s our minimum daily costs. We don’t buy stuff that’s delicious, only normal food. But then there’s also my siblings’ education costs, and when I don’t have the money, I borrow from the banks. And now, my bank loans have increased.

“And work? If I were to go and try to find work at a new factory that pays monthly, they wouldn’t take me because I am labelled a ‘worker representative’ and I am “old”. I am 40. Right now, I work by the day where they pay around USD 1/hour or something like that. But in a month, I only work 2-3 days, sometimes nothing. Now, even at the other factories, even the people who get paid monthly, also don’t have work, so I don’t have work either. The factories are letting the day workers go and for people who work monthly, they are getting 50 per cent pay cuts. 

“I want the label owner to pay back the workers following the law. We work for a very popular brand, they have a very popular name, and they haven’t resolved their problems with us. I want to ask them to pay us back following the labour laws. We, the workers, are facing difficulties. We sewed for this brand, and we just want the [people] to comment or share the message so they can help quicken the process of resolving our problems. We just want them to help pressure the brand so we can receive the pay we are owed.”

Dr Brandais York, Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights

This article was published on Apparel Insider on 11 September 2023.

11 September 2023