March 25: Buying the Poor for Nike

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
   and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
   so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
   so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
   and practice deceit with false balances, 
buying the poor for silver
   and the needy for a pair of sandals,
   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ 
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob;
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Amos 8:4-7

Sophorn Yang worked in one of the thousand garment factories scattered across the Cambodian countryside. She was one of the young women who made up 90% of the workforce at these factories, a workforce of nearly a million.

She suffered the same indignities as all the rest of these million, faceless, unknown workers. “Every day, workers commute to factories on crowded truck beds,” Yang said. “Many workers suffer from malnutrition, deprivation of health insurance and wage thievery.”

Throughout the workday, workers are forbidden to take breaks for ordinary needs, such as going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water. Meanwhile, the conditions inside the factory are oppressively hot and uncomfortable.

Yet this is the way that American athletic shoes are made. 

When we shuffle through the aisles at our local department store and try on our favorite Nikes, we are handling the sweat, blood, and tears of millions of Cambodian workers. Their efforts enable us to purchase those shoes for just a few dollars less than we might ordinarily have to pay. 

The prophet Amos had harsh words for those who sell out the poor in order to increase their profit margins — God promises not to forget their deeds. Deceitful business practices are a great crime against God.

Unfortunately, in a globalized economy, it has become increasingly difficult to know exactly how unjust a company’s business practices are. Large numbers of corporations now do their manufacturing overseas, far away from sane regulations and the protective eyes of watchdogs. Some businesses plead that they aren’t responsible for how their products are made because the manufacturing has been subcontracted out — they insist that they have nothing to do with these sweatshops.

For the American consumer, however, these excuses ring hollow. It does matter that Nikes are made by Cambodian workers who are deprived of basic human decencies. It does matter how our coffee ends up on shelves in the grocery store, and where the lumber comes from that is fashioned into tables and chairs. It matters who assembles our computers and where its parts come from.

Because we are the ones who benefit. 

But who suffers?

Prayer: God, open my eyes to the chain of production that eases my lifestyle. I know that my shoes don’t materialize from nothing. Someone has put them together, stitched them up, and put them in a box. Though I don’t know who did that, I pray for their welfare, their security, their shalom. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Download an app called Buycott to your phone. Sign up for a campaign called “Avoid Sweatshop Labor.” Whenever you are about to purchase an item of clothing, you can scan the UPC and determine quickly whether the company is known for manufacturing items in sweatshops.