As top sportswear brands prepare to showcase their wares at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Germany, behind the scenes many sportswear workers in Asia who attempt to unionize are facing intimidation or dismissal, according to a report released today by Oxfam International.
Oxfam’s report, "Offside! Labor Rights and Sportswear Production in Asia," found that workers making clothes, shoes and other goods for global sports brands have been dismissed or threatened with violence when they have organized unions to lobby for better pay and conditions. The majority of Asian sportswear workers are women from poor communities, many supporting children and families. Oxfam says that none of the big sports brands are doing enough to solve the problem.
"In 2004 the Play Fair Alliance – including Oxfam, the Clean Clothes Campaign and Global Unions – challenged the industry to improve labor conditions, but sadly little has changed. Workers' right to form unions is crucial to achieving the big improvements needed on the factory floor but many brands are still not willing to play ball," says Kelly Dent, Oxfam International spokesperson and the report's co-author.
Oxfam’s year-long survey of 12 sporting labels found that FILA, a major US-based sponsor in world tennis, was bottom of the league and had failed to address serious labor abuses in its supply chain. In one case, a FILA sport shoe supplier in Indonesia with an appalling record of worker abuse closed suddenly and without warning. A year later, none of its 3,500 workers have received any back-pay or severance pay. FILA refuses to reveal its role in the closure or take responsibility for the workers.
"Unless workers are free to bargain collectively for better pay and conditions, companies like FILA will continue to get away with this kind of outrageous behavior. Professional footballers are represented by players’ associations, sportswear workers should be allowed to form unions," Dent said.
Oxfam says that Reebok has done the most to uphold sportswear workers' rights in Asia while other big brands such as Nike, adidas, Puma and Asics had made some improvements. However, the performance of the industry as a whole remains poor.
For example, an adidas supplier in Indonesia recently dismissed 30 union workers who took part in a legal strike for more pay so that they could meet dramatic rises in the cost of living. Workers receive as little as 60 cents an hour for their labor.
The Panarub factory near Jakarta makes the adidas' Predator Pulse boots promoted by England’s David Beckham and Frank Lampard, France’s Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Viera, Spain’s Raul and Brazil’s Kaka, as well as the +F50.6 Tunit boots promoted by Holland’s Arjen Robben, Germany’s Kevin Kuranyi and Brazil’s Ze Roberto in the lead up to the FIFA World Cup. However, adidas has refused to help the 30 sacked workers get their jobs back.
"The dismissal of these workers sends a very worrying signal to sports brands that it’s acceptable to discriminate against union workers. In the past adidas has shown leadership within the industry and the company should continue to do so by ensuring the factory reinstates these workers," Dent said.
"The sportswear industry is a valuable source of jobs in Asia. But consumers and workers alike have the right to expect that global brands will not exploit the people making their goods," concluded Dent.
Garment Factory – Romania, 1998
The garment industry is a highly mobile one. This means that companies can easily shut down their operations (for example, if workers begin to demand their rights) and move elsewhere. Operations might move from country to country within a region, or from Indonesia for example, all they way to Bulgaria. At the moment a great deal of garment production for Western Europe is moving to Eastern Europe – the wages are low, workers are desperate for work, unions are weak, as are the labor inspectorates, and the distance to the Western European market is short. Recent research on workwear (uniforms) produced for city employees in Amsterdam showed that most of the garments were made in Eastern Europe or Northern Africa.
Garment workers’ dormitory -- Mauritius, 1997
In many countries around the world where garments are produced, the women doing the work have migrated from somewhere else in order to take up these jobs. They are often housed in dormitories, like this one in Africa that housed Chinese migrant workers, which are crowded, dirty, and unsafe. Migrant workers usually suffer isolation since they don’t speak the local language, are separated from their families, are usually paid lower wages then local workers and are excluded from many activities that locals might have the opportunity to participate in. Sometimes migrant workers toil in virtual slavery, since they have agreed to pay high fees in order to secure their jobs and must work off their debt
Garment factory exterior – Lesotho (Kingdom in South Africa), 2001
Clothing that is sold in the Netherlands and other European countries is produced all over the world – in Asia, Africa, Central America and increasingly in Eastern Europe. Garments are produced in factories, such as the facility in Africa shown above, but also in small workshops and even in people’s own homes. Often the garments we wear have traveled more than we have – the cotton might be grown in one place, the cloth woven in another, the buttons and zippers in another country perhaps, the embroidery done in someone’s living room in a different country, and finally the garment is assembled in yet another location. It’s not unusual for factories that produces clothes for export to Europe to be grouped together in special industrial areas where their owners are given special privileges. These areas – known as free trade zones or export processing zones – often offer tax breaks to investors and outlaw trade unions. Garment factories like the one shown above are often surrounded by barbed wire fences, and even policed by armed private security or the military.
Homes of garment workers -- Indonesia, 2001
Taking a look at the communities in which garment workers live – such as these squalid homes in Indonesia – is evidence of the fact that such workers are usually not paid wages that allow them to live in dignity. A look inside the homes might also reveal that they bring home work with them, to try to earn enough to put food on the table. When work is done in the home – usually at much lower piece rates then those paid in the factory – children are usually involved.
Nike code of conduct -- Thailand, 1999
As activists and consumers began to question the bad conditions that the things they bought were made in, companies at first denied all responsibility for the terrible labor rights violations. After years of pressure from activists they began to admit that problems existed and that they had a responsibility to enforce good labor standards in the workplaces where their goods are produced. Some companies developed "codes of conduct" – list of labor standards that they promise to uphold in their workplaces. Unfortunately, many of these company codes are incomplete (they leave out the most important rights, such as the right to form a union and bargain collectively), vague (they say things like "we’ll pay fair wages" – but who decides what is fair?) and in most cases they are unenforced (many say that they monitor the implementation of their code, but in fact the codes are usually not even translated into the local language and workers rarely know they exist). At last count there was an estimated 240 codes of conduct. In the course of research, the CCC has turned up countless number of violations of corporate codes of conduct
Clean Clothes Campaign rally -- Amsterdam, 1999
The CCC works in a variety of ways to improve working conditions and empower workers. Rallies and demonstrations, like the one pictured above; awareness-raising, pressuring companies for systemic changes, solidarity actions and campaigns in relation to specific cases of labor rights violations and also through legal initiatives. For more information on the campaign and how you can become involved, contact the CCC office nearest you or visit the CCC website.