Haunting Photos Show The High Cost of Cheap Nikes

Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
Shoppers everywhere have seen (and maybe even bought) the counterfeit shoes, bags, and clothing that line the walls of stalls along Canal Street in New York City or are hawked by vendors in nearly any major city in America. But, aside from worrying about their dubious quality, few of us stop to think about the real cost of those bogus goods — namely, how it affects the workers who make them.

And, contrary to the stereotype many of us have, these knockoffs aren't just made in China anymore. Counterfeiting shoes, clothes, and bags is a billion-dollar industry on the rise, and those products can come from all around the globe, including from Chinese-owned factories in Africa.

Since 2003, China has invested at least 70 percent of its foreign direct investment into African nations. Back home, China has been universally applauded for reversing the story of hardship in its own nation as a result of its historic economic growth, which has lifted 500 million people out of poverty. And abroad, China is also responsible for helping to change the narrative throughout Africa with the roads, hospitals, schools, and manufacturing jobs that Chinese investment has created.

This past August, China and the East African nation of Tanzania signed a deal called the China Africa Development Fund. The agreement promises to allow more than 100 Chinese investors to invest directly in Tanzania’s manufacturing industry, purportedly creating jobs and dismantling poverty. And though many in Tanzania are eager to see the nation jump-start its economy, China’s labor practices have raised some serious red flags.

To find out more, I traveled to a Chinese-owned factory outside Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam, on a bright Sunday afternoon in August. I drove up to the long wall that fenced off the factories from the otherwise bare road. It was only when Chinese factory owner and manager Fei Lin opened a door along the wall of LMFLY Trading Corporation Ltd. that an assortment of buildings came into full view. My curiosity pushed me to ask Lin for a tour.

Ahead, rarely seen photos from inside one of Tanzania's counterfeit shoe sweatshops.

Photo caption: Male workers, some younger than 18, sit on the floor behind a pile of shoes. Some of the workers at LMFLY's factory were too young to work legally.

Author's note: Reporting for this story was made possible by the International Women's Media Foundation African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.
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Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
Inside the factory, men and women were hard at work, producing counterfeit Adidas and Nike football shoes, sandals, and cute-as-a-button dress shoes for little girls. A closer look revealed a lack of protective gear for the young men who busied themselves with logo production, as well as a lack of face masks for all employees, even though fumes permeated the air.

Other workers told me they routinely labored beyond eight hours without earning overtime, which is required under Tanzanian labor law. Some of the workers appeared to be far younger 18, the legal age to work in Tanzania. Some of the younger workers hid their faces as I took photographs.

Fatima Harisi, 24, has three children that she supports alone since her husband separated from her.

"Life is difficult because I don't have a husband. I was married, and then we separated. My salary is not enough, but I don't have any options," Harisi said.

Photo caption: Fatima Harisi works assembling shoes. Some of the younger girls and women seated with her cover their faces to avoid having their picture taken. Some of the factory's workers looked younger than the required age of 18.
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Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
Of the seven workers I interviewed, the most consistent complaint they expressed was regarding pay. While factory workers claimed to work seven days a week at 12-hour shifts, a daily salary of roughly 4,000 shillings for females and 5,000 shillings for males means that LMFLY employees are making roughly US$1.75 to $2.25 per day.

"My salary is not sufficient. I only receive 5,000 [US$2.25] shillings per 12-hour shift," "said Salum Zuberi, 20, who has worked at the factory for nine months.

Photo caption: Salum Zuberi, 20, works putting fake Adidas logos on shoes at the factory.
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Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
Both Adidas and Nike said they did not manufacture products in Tanzania.

"We, in South Africa, do not have any production coming from Tanzania," Adidas Senior Manager of Local Sourcing Kate Wallace wrote in an email.

A Nike representative referred me to its Global Manufacturing Map, where Tanzania does not appear as a production center. However, Nike added that it is possible that the company could have a factory in Tanzania because "the information is proprietary and may not be for the public."

Photo caption: Counterfeit Nike football shoes lay in piles on the floor.
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Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
Rehema Rabhamani, 28, said she takes care of her three children alone on her salary of 4,000 shillings [US$1.75] per day. Rabhamani and her husband separated, and though she has the support of her family to help with the children, she said the "money is too little to support her family." She and three young workers, including two females and one male, work to accessorize shiny black girls' shoes with bedazzled bows.
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Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
Fei Lin, who manages the factory, told me workers' wages were in line with "the national standard."

But Tanzanian Legal and Human Rights Centre Director of Advocacy and Reforms Harold Sungusia challenged Lin's claim. Sungusia said that Tanzanian law dictates that salaries for both men and women "should be at least 4,423.40 shillings per day ($2.12) [for all workers]." Sungusia also said it was illegal for people to work more than six days per week, but, according to the LMFLY employees I interviewed, violating that law was standard practice.

Photo caption: A girl's work: A pair of church shoes sit on the table near the assembler's arms. Her job was to attach gold-colored embellishments to shoe bows.
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Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
As in China itself, another issue in Chinese-owned factories in Tanzania is child labor. Although only one worker admitted to me that he was 17, according to Tanzania’s Employment and Labor Act, even at that age, it is illegal to work, since "a child under 18 years of age shall not be employed in a mine, factory, or as crew on a ship or in any other worksite."

Photo caption: Finished girls' dress shoes sit on a table.
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Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
This was only 20-year-old Sadiq Muhammad's fourth day on the job. When asked why he took the job, Muhammad said, "Even though the salary is insufficient, I had no other alternative."
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Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
Labor practices by Chinese-owned companies in Africa have long been of concern, even outside the manufacturing sector. In 2011, the National Mine Workers' Union and Zimbabwe Construction and Allied Trade Workers' Union complained that workers were "tortured" and "often forced to work long hours for low pay and with inadequate protective clothing." As recently as 2014, Zimbabwean workers, who called their Chinese employers "slave drivers," still complained about making $4 a day, being illegally discouraged from joining trade unions, and being slapped after commiting minor offenses.

Photo caption: Yellow sandals produced in the factory lay in piles along the floor.
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Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
Eighteen-year-old Anthony Pius broke out in nervous laughter at the sight of the camera. Describing his salary as "very little," Pius said, "I'm working here because I have nowhere else to go."
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Photo: Courtesy of Abena Agyeman-Fisher.
The Business Human Rights Center is a nongovernmental organization that has been documenting China's labor practices both within China and in Chinese-owned businesses abroad. The group's research director, Gregory Regaignon, told Refinery29 via email that while it has been a long road, conditions in Chinese factories have started to improve.

"In all, although workplaces in China are often unsafe, the truth is that conditions in China are improving, whether because workers are better able to assert themselves as the labor market tightens or because the Chinese government has sensed a need to temper its priority of export- and manufacturing-led growth with some protections for workers and others affected by investment. In this sense, Africans should hope that the 'Chinese model' is exported to Africa, as that model improves," Regaignon said.

But he cautioned that laborers at Chinese-owned factories throughout Africa could have a long way to go before those improvements are exported.

"Now that Chinese workers are growing somewhat more empowered to demand better wages and higher conditions, and safety in mines is improving, Chinese companies may see some African countries as places where they can continue to operate with low standards of respect for human rights," he added.

Photo caption: Fatima Harisi, 24 (in purple) ,works with other women assembling shoes.

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