Comments, In Focus

The hidden Olympic sweat stains

At the top of the Olympic food chain there is a feast of image-making for multi-national sponsors, obscuring the economic injustice suffered by Asian factory workers who produce their goods. War on Want is campaigning for globally recognized legislation to protect them.


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Children in Bangladeshi Factory - Photo by Tarif Rahman

Graham Douglas


“Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” (Olympic Charter).

But not much joy of effort reaches women in Bangladesh making clothes for the companies sponsoring the London Olympics. While others extract profit from Olympic Values, their way of life is a struggle to provide educational value and good examples for their children.

The Olympics are approaching with much fanfare and talk of Britain being open for business, and the companies that sponsor the games are wrapping themselves in the glow of Olympic values.

But behind this veneer there is a struggle to guarantee decent conditions and fair pay for workers in the factories who supply the sponsor companies and official partners.

Olympism, as stated in the Olympic Charter, should be a movement that respects fundamental rights, not just a sporting event.

Multi-national companies choose the countries with the lowest costs and easy hiring and firing of workers. Multi-national companies aren’t paying enough for the product for workers to be paid a living wage.

Bangladesh Factory - Photo by Laia Blanch

Bangladesh is of most concern because wages are much lower there than anywhere else in Asia.

Besides low pay, there are other abuses, including the obligation to work overtime, which affects women particularly.

The clothing business accounts for 80% of the exports of Bangladesh and the government has created special Economic Processing Zones to support the business. The factories in these areas have better conditions for workers, but trade unions are restricted, and tight security makes investigation difficult.

War on Want is a No Governmental Organization fighting for economic justice which has worked with the National Garment Workers Federation of Bangladesh (NGWF), for 10 years.

Here Murray Worthy, their Senior Economic Justice Campaigner talked to The Prisma about their campaign for a fair Olympics. They have 3 objectives: a living wage for all workers; no forced overtime; and the right to join trade unions.

What approach have you adopted on this campaign?

We see the fundamental need as regulation of international companies. Existing regulations only apply within one country and they vary a lot. In the garment industry almost all production is out-sourced so companies have no responsibility for human rights abuses in the supply chains. Only legislation will lead to real changes.

What steps are you taking?

In the UK we are calling for a Government Commission on Business, Human Rights and the Environment. Besides giving out human rights information and advice to companies, one of its key functions would be to provide a route for victims of Human Rights abuses to gain redress from companies operating in the UK.

In 2011 the United Nations made recommendations on the regulations required.

The UK Govt is looking at implementing them, but we think they will water them down a lot. Domestically, they don’t see workers’ rights as a priority, as the Queen’s Speech said today. They want to make the labour market more flexible, which is code for eroding workers’ rights.

You published a report last year called “Stitched Up” about the Bangladeshi garment industry.

We’ve worked with the National Garment Workers Federation of Bangladesh (NGWF), for about 10 years now, helping them with training internally, helping more women to become involved in the union, which is mainly run by men although 85% of the workforce are women.

They played an important role in securing the wage increase in 2010, an 80% increase for the lowest paid. It was the first for 4 years, even though food prices had increased enormously during that time.

We also helped them in their campaign strategies.

What difficulties did you encounter?

This kind of research is very challenging because multi-national companies are increasingly cracking down on access to factories.

Everyone is searched, so you can’t get cameras in. It’s much harder to prove what is being made in a factory, and who it is made for, or to look at the working conditions.

Workers are told not to speak to researchers, on pain of losing their jobs or being fined.  Some of our researchers were threatened by thugs employed by a factory and stopped from meeting workers when they left. There is a real pressure from high-street brands for information to be kept out of the public domain.

The Bangladeshi economy is 80% dependent on clothes exports; do you think that pressure for wage increases will damage it?

Bangladeshi wages are still much lower than anywhere else in Asia, so they aren’t at any disadvantage in bidding for contracts. Labour costs are about 3-4% of the selling price, so a 50% increase in wages makes very little difference: the profit margins of the retailers are enormous.

Are you concerned about companies taking legal action against WoW?

In the UK there are very strict libel laws, so research evidence has to be very solid, and you have to frame your claims very carefully. In Bangladesh the government is very anti-trade union, so we have to be concerned about the safety of people who are doing that work there.

Laws exist in Bangladesh, are they not implemented?

There are problems, such as not paying the minimum wage, and around one third of MPs own, or are closely connected with businesses.

Some of these factories are based in Export Processing Zones, where they are exempt from labour laws about working hours and trade union organization. These are common in many SE Asian countries and usually have tax incentives as they try to compete for business – we call it a Race to the Bottom.

Bangladeshi factory - Photo by Laia Blanch

Multi-national companies choose the countries with the lowest costs and easy hiring and firing of workers. The issue is not that laws are not enforced, but that multi-national companies aren’t paying enough for the product for workers to be paid a living wage. Most of the output of a factory will go to one company, so they can dictate terms.

What is your long-term goal?

We try to expose the multi-nationals publicly, as we’ve recently done with Adidas, showing that their buying practices are based on exploitation and maintaining poverty.

But long-term, we don’t want NGOs and the media to be the only people holding companies to account. We want official institutions created to ensure that rights are respected and that buying practices are not based on human rights abuses.

Abuses happen in Indonesia too. Have you decided just to focus on Bangladesh?

Our campaigns are framed around where our partners are, and where we can do the research. But we do work with organizations in Sri Lanka, China and a women’s workers organization in Honduras.

Bangladesh is one of the worst examples, having the lowest wages in the world. War on Want is also part of the Playfair 2012 campaign. Last weekend they published a report on a range of official sports clothing, from Adidas and Next, in The Phillipines, Sri Lanka and China. That is part of a longer-term global alliance called Playfair.

The payment of $1 million of back pay for unpaid overtime in Indonesia came out of a long process after the Beijing Olympics, so all of this fits into a bigger picture focused on sporting events and the sport industry.

The London Organizing Committee (LOCOG) signed an agreement with Playfair and the TUC about ethical sourcing. Is it working?

It’s the first time this has been done. The London Games have been a huge leap forward, because all supplies must meet the Ethical Trade Initiative code, which was developed in 2010, based on International Labour Organization conventions and includes the Living Wage. We still need a complaints mechanism available in languages other than English and displayed in factories. The recent agreement was that workers must be informed of their rights, but it has come much too late for 2012.

What are the criteria for companies to be Olympic sponsors? How do Dow, one-time makers of Napalm and Agent Orange support Olympic values?

Bangladeshi garment worker and her children at their one-room slum home in the capital Dhaka Photo by Tarif Rahman

LOCOG have paid a lot of attention to suppliers signing up to ethical agreements. So Dow, which supplied the stadium wrap, had to meet environmental and sustainability criteria in its production, but their broader activities were not considered. Despite still being involved in lawsuits in India over Bhopal, they can be accepted as sponsors. Or Rio Tinto, which has an appalling record of environmental damage in many countries, including Mongolia, where they mine the metals for the Olympic medals.

It goes against the Olympic spirit.

Absolutely, the Olympic Charter says that Olympism should be a movement that respects fundamental rights, not just a sporting event. If sponsors had to meet serious human rights criteria in their general activities, the list of names would look very different from how it is today.

Sponsorship has huge commercial value…

Adidas paid 100 million dollars to become a Tier 1 sponsor, but even that is cheap, considering the exposure they get and that they associate their name with Olympic values.

A lot of the funding process is secretive; the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is itself a multi-national company, based in Switzerland.

The IOC decides who some of the corporate partners will be, then there are others chosen by the local Organizing Committee. They have to ensure that sponsors are protected from ambush advertising – which means that no-one can wear a Pepsi T-shirt or carry cans of Pepsi inside the arena because Coca-Cola is one of the sponsors.

So this is fair play and free market competition! Will you be involved in Rio 2016?

We will be part of the Playfair coalition, people from Rio have already been over and we are going to use London as a benchmark and argue that all future games must meet these ethical criteria.

Partnerships last 10 years, at least 2 Olympics, will you be lobbying the IOC?

India has threatened a boycott over Bhopal because of Dow’s involvement, and the Commission for Sustainable London, based at City Hall is going to make recommendations to the IOC this month.

How about the bigger picture of economic justice?

Both labour laws and tax avoidance by multi-nationals are now worldwide issues. The Occupy movement idea of the 99% sums it up. The issue is inequality between rich and poor worldwide, and I think some very interesting global links are going to come out of this.

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  1. Pingback: Impunity and its social roots | ThePrisma.co.uk

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