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Olympic fair play should extend to the sportswear

It’s a race to the bottom

Olympic fair play should extend to the sportswear industry

As momentum builds toward the Athens Olympic Games, it is not just athletes who are feeling the pressure. The global sportswear industry is using ruthless tactics to produce the latest fashions, made cheaper and better to ever more punishing deadlines. In order to deliver, suppliers are forcing their employees to work longer and harder, denying them their fundamental workers’ rights.

Poor women in developing nations make most of our sportswear. A new report launched today by Oxfam and the Council of Trade Unions shows that the women in this industry are often forced to work long shifts - up to 18 hours a day, 7 days a week - or are doing up to 45 hours of forced overtime each week. Women workers are being paid as little as two cents to sew a pair of trousers. In other situations they are paid around four dollars a day making running shoes that sell for over $100 a pair.

“We all love the Olympics and players in the sportswear industry are cashing in on this, at the same time placing massive pressure on their manufacturing suppliers” said Barry Coates, Executive Director of Oxfam New Zealand. “If hypocrisy and exploitation were Olympic sports, most sportswear companies would win medals,” said Coates. “Human rights are being sacrificed in the search for profits. Should the race to outfit athletes mean a race to the bottom for these workers?”

The report notes that the fact that sportswear can now be made anywhere in the world means that international brands can bargain their suppliers down to rock bottom prices. It has become standard practice in the industry to impose near-impossible demands on suppliers to deliver cheaply and quickly. This is forcing suppliers to make their employees do more and more work for less and less money. Some brands do have codes of conduct for their suppliers, but these are often inadequate and the study shows that they are in any case frequently violated in the struggle to comply with the demands of the sportswear companies.

“The Olympic Games are supposed to be a showcase for fairness and human achievement, but the exploitation and abuse of workers endemic in the sportswear industry is violating that Olympic spirit,” says Ross Wilson, President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions. “Sportswear companies cannot be allowed to continue to profit from exploitation. These companies must comply with core labour standards recognised by the United Nations and International Labour Organisation, including the right to form and join trade unions. Respect for workers’ rights in the sportswear industry is long overdue.”

The new report forms the basis of a global campaign called Play Fair at the Olympics, aimed at improving working conditions in the sportswear industry. The campaign calls on the International Olympic Committee, the New Zealand Olympic Committee and companies such as Fila, Puma, and Asics to put a stop to the inhumane treatment of vulnerable workers around the world.

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