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June 16, 2010

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Worker abuse rife among Olympic supply chains

Behind the glitz and the glamour of events like the World Cup and the Olympic Games there are workers around the world sweating blood to fulfil orders for major sportswear brands and forced to work in unsafe factories for paltry pay packets.

This was the picture painted by Lilis Mahmudah, an activist in the Serikat Pekerja Nasional Textile and Garment Trade Union in Indonesia, at an event held by the TUC in London last week.

According to the TUC and the Labour Behind the Label campaign, the Olympics is a multi-million dollar industry but the movement is not doing enough to safeguard decent working conditions and pay for those producing sportswear and Olympics-branded merchandise.

Poverty wages, child labour, poor health and safety, union busting, forced overtime, and a reliance on a disposable workforce characterise Olympics supply chains. Research carried out in 2008 by the Playfair campaign found that workers in these supply chains face extreme pressure to meet production quotas in an environment where verbal abuse, health and safety violations, and a failure to provide legally-required health insurance programmes are the norm.

Sam Maher, of Labour Behind the Label – a supporter of the Playfair 2012 initiative – commented: “In spite of more than 20 years of codes of conduct adopted by most major sportswear brands, workers still face bullying and harassment, poverty wages, excessive, undocumented and unpaid overtime, and threats to health and safety.

“It is high time the Olympic spirit of fair play is extended to the millions of people employed in global supply chains producing kit and merchandise for the Games.”

Ms Mahmudah, who is currently engaged in negotiations with major sportswear brands to bring an end to the exploitation of workers in these sectors, explained that health and safety is not taken seriously by supplier companies. She described an environment where both physical and mental abuses are rife, where workers are given no time to take rests, toilet breaks, or consume refreshments, and where supervisors resort to abusive language, or throwing items if they suspect a worker of making a mistake.

She went on to describe how suppliers’ refusal to provide protective clothing for workers is also commonplace. The reality is that the workers have to buy this clothing themselves, or go without.

However, such issues often get swept under the carpet, not least because workers themselves are worried about the repercussions of raising them – fearing they might lose their jobs, pay, or put the entire contract with the brand in jeopardy.

In one incident, a barefooted woman was electrocuted when she made contact with a live cable after she returned from the bathroom with wet feet. The workers, however, did not want the issue raised with the authorities for fear that the factory would be closed down.

Enforcement in Indonesia, too, is weak. Explained Ms Mahmudah: “There is an organisation that deals with labour relations and that is the Department of Manpower. They do have a monitoring element to what they do but they are not effective. The government imperative is to have as many people in employment as possible, and it is therefore more swayed to the interests and needs of the investor.”

Playfair 2012 is calling on the London Olympic Games, the sportswear industry, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ensure that the rights of workers making Olympics-branded goods are respected. It is calling on the likes of Adidas, Nike and Pentland to:

  • commit to ensuring that workers making their products are paid a living wage;
  • eliminate short-term contracts and provide job security; and
  • help create a positive climate where workers are free to organise and join trade unions.

Following discussions with Playfair, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) has already agreed to include in its contract with suppliers a commitment to meet the Ethical Trade Initiative base code – a well-recognised standard on labour rights – and put out to tender a contract for a complaints mechanism for workers to report any violations of their rights.

Progress with the IOC has, however, been limited, reports the campaign. Among its demands, Playfair wants the Committee to acknowledge publicly the need to end the exploitation of workers in the sportswear and athletic footwear industries, as well as make it a condition for future Olympic Games that the host country must respect ILO Conventions.

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