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     Aug 23, 2008
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Sportswear firms fail Olympics test
By Maquila Solidarity Network, editor Erik Leaver

The Beijing Summer Olympic Games represent a golden opportunity for the brand-conscious sportswear industry to associate its products with the cherished Olympic brand. For a costly but manageable sponsorship or licensing fee, a sportswear company can infuse its athletic shoes and clothes brands with the lofty Olympic ideals of fair play, perseverance and, most important, winning.

By linking their brands with the Olympic Games, or other sporting events such as the Union of European Football Associations' European Cup, sportswear companies hope to reach for the gold in sales, market share and brand recognition. If the past is any guide, these major sporting events should prove extremely


profitable for some of the major players in this global industry.

But there is another side to the story. Before the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, the Play Fair at the Olympics Campaign - the biggest international worker rights mobilization of its kind - brought the world's attention to the underside of the sportswear industry: the abysmal working conditions endured by the young women, men and children who make the shoes, jerseys, footballs and other items in contract factories and subcontract facilities around the world.

Flash forward four years, with the Beijing Olympics upon the horizon, and it's time to ask, "What, if anything, has improved?"

Based on interviews with over 320 sportswear workers in China, India, Thailand and Indonesia, as well as reviews of company and industry profiles, published and unpublished reports, newspaper articles, web sites, and factory advertisements, researchers from the Play Fair network found that while some brands have developed labor rights monitoring and compliance programs and taken action on a number of issues and cases, substantial violations of worker rights are still the norm for workers in the sportswear industry.

Despite more than 15 years of codes of conduct adopted by major sportswear brands, such as Adidas, Nike, New Balance, Puma and Reebok, workers making their products still face extreme pressure to meet production quotas, excessive, undocumented and unpaid overtime, verbal abuse, threats to health and safety related to the high quotas and exposure to toxic chemicals, and a failure to provide legally required health and other insurance programs.

Play Fair researchers also found that wages for sportswear workers are still well below a local living wage. Even where governments raised the legal minimum wage or sportswear brand buyers attempt to impose limits on overtime, Play Fair researchers found evidence of employers finding new ways to evade their responsibilities.

For example, when the Chinese government raised the minimum wage in Dongguan, Guangdong province, in order to account for a skyrocketing inflation rate on basic goods like food, employers at many of the athletic footwear factories studied by Play Fair found ways to nullify the increase. Some employers raised production targets, thereby reducing or eliminating production bonuses, a significant portion of worker incomes. Others introduced new charges for food, lodging or other services. Some of the workers interviewed now receive less income than before the minimum wage increase.

In some cases, Play Fair researchers discovered, workers are not even receiving the legal minimum wage, despite working 12-13 hours a day. As well, in a number of the factories studied, there was evidence of employers falsifying factory records to mask the fact that employees were being forced to work excessively long and illegal hours and were not receiving the legal overtime premium pay.

Home-based workers stitching soccer balls in Jalandhar, India told Play Fair researchers that piece rates have remained stagnant for the past five years, despite local inflation rates last year estimated at between 6.7% and 10%. Depending on the type of ball, a home-based hand stitcher makes between US$0.35 and US$0.88 per ball, completing two to four balls a day. Home-based workers also face a total lack of income security. During months when orders are low, households are often plunged into debt to money lenders.

"We have no savings so we have nothing left during emergencies," said a 50-year-old soccer ball stitcher. There are few if any safety nets available for homeworkers: sickness or an accident can amount to a catastrophe. "I have lost my wife's gold, which I gave as security to a moneylender and could not repay," he said. "Once I even rented my cooking gas cylinder to arrange some money for a health emergency suffered by my wife. The situation is similar for all of us. One of my friends even sold his blood to get some extra money to meet an emergency."

Three hurdles to overcome
Across the global sportswear industry, workers manufacturing sports apparel, footwear, and soccer balls all report the same kinds of problems. These findings are not new. A particular business model, lack of incentives, competing interests, institutional inertia, and other factors have often negated even the best efforts to fix the endemic problems that continue to plague this industry.

Rather than merely rehashing a litany of abuses, this report seeks to identify solutions to these persistent workplace problems, focusing on three central hurdles that, if not overcome, will inhibit the industry's ability to make real progress on other issues in the future.

If the sportswear industry is serious about changing the way business is currently done, there is an urgent need to take immediate steps to address these three central issues.

The lack of respect for workers' right to freedom of association and to bargain collectively impedes worker efforts to resolve workplace problems as they arise and to negotiate long-term improvements in wages and working conditions.

The dominant attitude and practice in this industry is so biased against the development of trade unions that we believe a more proactive approach is needed to create a positive (rather than just neutral) climate for unions. We believe that companies should adopt a positive approach towards the activities of trade unions and an open attitude towards the organizational activities of workers.

Workers face considerable obstacles when they try to exercise their right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, including:
  • Dismissal of union leaders and supporters.
  • Refusal by factory management to recognize and negotiate with unions.
  • Closures of or reduction in orders to unionized facilities.
  • Movement of production to jurisdictions where freedom of association is legally restricted.
  • Management promotion and selection of unrepresentative "worker committees".

    Factory closures
    The rash of factory closures that has accompanied industry restructuring over the past few years contributes to a climate of fear among workers and suppliers, feeding the myth that any efforts to improve conditions will only lead to more job losses. When workers face employment insecurity, they are less likely to take steps to challenge abusive practices.

    While a few brand-sensitive sportswear companies are willing to discuss how to minimize the negative impacts of restructuring and consolidation, the vast majority refuse to even consider whether they have an obligation to justify their decisions to workers or communities that will be negatively affected.

    Closures should only occur when a factory is no longer able to sustain itself economically and all other options to rescue the business have been exhausted. But it's not always easy to disentangle the responsibility for economic decisions that affect the viability of a particular factory.

    Suppliers and/or buying agents using multiple factories in one or more countries make choices about which factories receive which orders, affecting the viability of one or another facility. Buyers also, either by decision or simply by neglect, fail to support facilities that have been more compliant with labor standards - especially those with collective bargaining agreements - leading to closures.

    Because we are dealing with global supply chains, a narrow assessment of one isolated facility's economic viability is not sufficient to rationalize a closure. A true assessment of a facility's economic viability must also take into account the order patterns from buyers, whether prices paid by buyers are sufficient to support labor rights compliance at a facility, and the finances of the parent company.

    Growth in precarious employment
    Although comprehensive global data across the industry is not available, unions and labor rights organizations have in recent years reported an increasing use by supplier factories of successive short-term employment contracts and third-party employment contract agencies.

    The growing use of short-term contracting and other forms of precarious employment is denying workers their social security and other legal entitlements, discouraging worker organizing, and undermining the enforcement of labor regulations, which too often do not apply to non-permanent workers.

    The problem is that the sportswear industry is addicted to flexibility. In the prevalent sportswear business model, retailers,

    Continued 1 2  

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