Olympic winners and losers

Adidas has good reason to celebrate Team GB’s success. It is the main sponsor of the Games and the official sponsor of the British team. But while the sports group bathes in reflected glory, the workers who stitch their gear work in conditions that fall far short of Olympic ideals of “human dignity”, says Valeria Costa-Kostritsky

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky
6 August 2012

If you didn’t know at the beginning of the London Olympic Games that Adidas was a major sponsor, you certainly do now. The name has hardly been off our screens. Watch the news or a video replay of the Jessica Ennis medal ceremony or the Greg Rutherford leap or the Mo Farah triumph and always somewhere  in view is the logo. According to Herbert Hainer, the Adidas CEO, speaking to the Independent, the brand has spent £100m in sponsorship, marketing and advertising since the London Olympic Games were first announced in 2007. They are the main sponsor of the Games and official sponsor of several national teams including Britain. Hainer wants the brand, which currently has 16 per cent of the UK sportswear market to close the gap with Nike, which has 18 per cent. In pursuit of this it has created 50 “adiZones” around the country in collaboration with local communities. These free outdoor gym facilities with their logos are here to stay and to serve as durable Adidas billboards.

Human dignity

For Adidas, the 2012 Olympics are an opportunity to be associated with a sports event that has a clean image and great values. The Olympic Charter states it thus: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

But a report entitled Fair Games? published in May 2012 by the Play Fair Campaign, an alliance of organisations including human rights and development NGOs and international trade union organisations, believes that the conditions under which Olympic clothes are made fall far short of the ideal of “preservation of human dignity”.

The Play Fair Campaign was born in the mid-1990s, in an effort to prevent the exploitation of workers making sporting goods or building sporting venues for major events. They campaigned in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008.

Adidas has set out its good intentions about “workplace standards”. In an extremely positive statement it describes the following ambitious vision: “PERFORMANCE. PASSION. INTEGRITY. DIVERSITY. These are the core values found in sport. Sport is the soul of the Adidas Group. We measure ourselves by these values, and we measure our business partners in the same way.”

But the reality may not always match the ambition. Laia Blanch, works for War on Want, an anti-poverty charity based in London that has been involved in the Play Fair Campaign, and has been travelling around the world to visit factories that produce clothes for multinational brands.

“My experience is that the same problems and violations are happening across the sector, all along the supply chain. It doesn't matter whether it is in Sri Lanka, in Honduras or in China,” she says. 

According to Blanch there are structural problems in the industry such as long working hours and occupational health and saftey problems related to garment production.

“Because of high production targets, workers are bound to work for 12 or 14 hours in a row, doing the same repetitive movements. There is no right to organise and that means that workers, if they try to organise a trade union, are blacklisted, that their names are circulated, and that they cannot find a job in the sector.”

The Play Fair Campaign Report interviewed a total of 175 workers  between October and December 2011. They were from 10 factories (eight of which were making goods for the London 2012 Olympics). In none of these factories were there recognised unions or credible workers’ organisations. Workers were prohibited from joining a union.

It is not easy to investigate the conditions in which the clothes and sports equipment that we buy in the rich world are produced. Most factories use CCTV and workers are  generally searched upon entering and leaving the premises. Often they do not know which brands they are producing – clothes are labelled afterwards at a different section or factory. In fact, as the interest of such organisations as Play Fair  has increased, so has the security surrounding sweatshops around sweatshops.

In the Fair Games? report, a senior labour officer employed at Mactan Economic Zone, in the Philippines, told researchers that strict regulations on people entering and leaving the Zone had originally been intended to prevent smuggling but that the system had become abused by security guards to prevent outsiders, including trade union representatives, from entering the Zone.

Multinational fashion brands often use their chains of suppliers as a smokescreen, scape-goating those where cases of abuse of workers emerge, and disputing the findings case by case, when in fact it is their purchasing practices that shape the way in which workers are treated.

“Nothing prevents Adidas from writing down in their contracts that workers should be paid a living wage,” argues Laia Blanch. “They are just not doing it. They seem not to care.”

The Play Fair Caimpaign made an important step forward with the 2012 Games, when the London Organising Commitee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) adopted a model code of conduct that makes it mandatory for all their suppliers to respect a living wage, ban excessive hours and guarantee freedom of association.

“In practice,” says Murray Worthy, War on Want Senior Economic Justice Campaigner, “we have seen very little change from previous Games. For future events, we know that having a code of conduct does not mean much unless you put in a real effort to make sure it has been implemented.”

Campaigners have found that the most effective way to force fashion brands to take action is through the people who matter most to them, that is to say their customers, and some have therefore taken advantage of the 2012 Games to target Adidas.

In June 2012, an international day of protest was organised after it appeared that Adidas had failed to contribute to the severance pay of workers in an Indonesian factory, PT Kizone, which produced goods for Adidas, Nike and other brands (only Adidas refused to pay the severance pay). A protest was organised in front of the London Oxford Street store. As a result, Adidas agreed to meet with union representatives for the first time, but negotiations failed when the multi million company said it would only provide the workers with food stamps.

The 34p an hour t-shirt

In another attempt to inform consumers, War on Want created alternative Adidas price tags displaying how little Adidas workers are paid per hour (34p), asking supporters to leave the labels as “gifts” in Adidas stores.

Being able to work in garment factories has given many workers – particularly women – independence and livelihoods and campaigners do not want the big names to pull out of the offending factories. However, they believe that the big brands could make small and affordable changes that would change the lives of these workers.

“Guaranteeing that its workers are paid a living wage would not increase the price of Adidas garments in the UK. We are talking about one or two pence per t-shirt,” says Murray Worthy.

In the long term, the alliance of organisations around Play Fair is campaigning for the creation of a garment production watchdog in the UK.

 “We believe that people who work supplying clothes for UK companies should have access to justice for abuses of their human rights by a multinational company. At the moment, workers whose rights have been abused cannot hold a company to account. We want the UK Government to introduce a body that would allow these workers access to justice, ” says Murray.

At the end of last month, the House of Lords gave a third reading to Groceries Adjudicator Bill to ensure fair treatment of supermarket suppliers. It is a model that campaigners for a sweatshop watchdog will be watching with interest.

Meanwhile campaigners are using the public’s enthusiasm for the Games as an opportunity to throw light on the darker side of the international clothing industry. One campaign video, entitled Exploitation, Not Okay Here, Not Okay Anywhere relays the  testimony of a Bangladeshi woman who works in a typical sweatshop. Her words, re-enacted by an English actress, who describes long hours and being bullied by her bosses: 

 “I work everyday. I get in early and I work late every shift. I work so long that I barely have time to see my own children and even then I struggle to feed my family. I'm terrified of getting ill because then I wouldn't get paid anything at all. (…) I'm terrified of my manager. I don’t earn enough to live and I work making clothes for Adidas.”

Adidas is just one of a number of top brand clothing and sports equipment companies failing the workers who make their products. But its pledge of “PERFORMANCE. PASSION. INTEGRITY. DIVERSITY” rings hollow while it allows such conditions to continue. Considerably more performance, passion and integrity is required.


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