San Diego Law Review

Document Type



In an earlier work, we offered a view on how trade should be treated within a theory of global justice. We proposed an account of exploitation to spell out the nature of the obligations that arise from trading. That account greatly benefits from a detailed development for concrete cases. The goal of this study and its close companion is to explore how our philosophical views help formulate judgments on a range of moral problems that arise from trading and to identify responsibilities of various actors and inform policy responses to instances of exploitation in trade.

To that end we use a well-known episode in the recent history of activism against a multinational corporation—the protests against Nike. We use Harvard Business School Case No. 9-700-047 (the Case), written up by Debora Spar. The title is Hitting the Wall: Nike and International Labor Practices. This is a thirteen-page discussion (plus several pages of exhibits) describing Nike’s success story and subsequent plights with labor activists through the ‘90s. Even though the Case has been used for teaching purposes since 2002, it has lost none of its systematic interest. It draws on a range of contexts where judgments of exploitation continue to be made and refers to ongoing businesses practices. The case has the additional advantage that it tells the story of one company (a well-known one, making it likely many of our readers own its products), which allows us to assess a number of judgments as part of an interconnected story, rather than deal with a laundry list of scenarios. In some instances, the Case itself uses the terminology of exploitation, but in others, it does not. Our aim in discussing this Case is twofold. On the one hand, we show that the notion of exploitation can fruitfully be applied to thinking about justice in trade. On the other hand, we cast judgment on central aspects of Nike’s activity in Southeast Asia.

One downside of our strategy of expounding judgments of exploitation in terms of this Case is that there are too many questions that need careful treatment. We have therefore broken this discussion into two pieces, narrating the Case in both. Section 2 summarizes our account of exploitation and elaborates on the distinction between moral problems that arise in the context of trade and those that arise from trading. Section 3 presents the Case and develops six questions for discussion in this piece and its companion. The first of three addressed in this study is the following: What moral questions arise in the context of relocating or outsourcing a business? In response we formulate conditions under which relocation is or is not morally problematic. One important result is that moral and political outrage at relocating companies to wealthier countries should often be redirected at the political community for not doing enough to soften the blow that some people suffer from such a move. The second question is the following: How should a company deal with an authoritarian regime in a country where it does business? In response we offer some thoughts on the circumstances under which states of exploitation could be justified as stepping stones towards a just world. The third question is the following: Under what conditions is compliance with existing regulation—such as labor protection legislation—required, and under what conditions are violations acceptable? We argue that absent special circumstances, a company ought to comply even if its competitors do not.

The remaining three questions, addressed in the companion piece, are these: How should one think about a just wage: is it a matter of productivity, should it reflect needs, or does it amount to an appropriate share in profits?; Is Nike responsible for actions of its subcontractors and thus perhaps guilty of indirect exploitation if, for instance, those subcontractors pay unjust wages?; Finally, do safety and health standards generate particular problems from the standpoint of exploitation?

Our focus on a company in this study and its companion should not deflect from the fact that our approach can account for exploitation among a range of actors—individuals, states, companies, international organizations. Nor should this focus be taken as an indication that efforts at ending exploitation should target companies rather than governments. Our project here is to think through a number of normative judgments, and we use Nike as a case study for that purpose.