Faster, more — and cheaper, too: The new Olympic ideal hardly smacks of fair play

“During busy periods we work from 8.30 a.m. until two [hours] after midnight, with a short break for food. Even if we are exhausted, we have no choice. We can’t refuse to work overtime, because our wages are so low. I earn $50 a month. When I don’t do overtime, I never have more than 40 cents left every month after paying rent and food,» said Phan, a 22-year-old woman working in an Indonesian factory producing sportswear for a major multinational. «The foremen use stopwatches to record the precise amount of time needed to finish every job. Many workers fall sick because they don’t even have time to go to the toilet if they want to meet the target,» said Jamal, a worker in a Nike factory in Indonesia. At a Bulgarian factory producing exclusively for the Puma brand, workers have complained of eye damage, varicose veins, back pains, allergic reactions to the dust, respiratory disease and exhaustion. These are examples of the modern-day slave labor employed by major sporting manufacturers getting ready for the Olympic Games in Athens. Countless male and female workers around the world are being exploited until they drop so these goods can be produced in time for the Games. The ancient ideal of the Olympics, «faster, higher, stronger,» has been translated into these assembly-line camps as «faster, more, cheaper.» Early this month, a report by Oxfam, a non-governmental organization, was released in cooperation with British unions, other international federations and organizations active in protecting workers’ rights, based on interviews with 186 workers in six countries (Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand and Turkey), nine factory directors and 10 company representatives. The report, titled «Play Fair at the Olympics,» shows that the firms are not only violating labor rights and national legislation but betraying the spirit and letter of the Olympic Charter. This is how Oxfam describes the situation: «While the world’s media spend two weeks focusing on the struggle for sporting success, away from the cameras thousands of workers – mostly women in the developing world – employed to produce the tracksuits, trainers, vests, and team uniforms will be engaged in a different type of struggle. They too are breaking records for the global sportswear industry: working ever faster for ever-longer periods of time under arduous conditions for poverty-level wages, to produce more goods and more profit. Yet for them there are no medals, rewards, or recognition from the industry that they service.» According to the report’s findings, factory managers make staff work 10-12 hour days, often up to 16-18 hours. At peak times workers are on the job seven days a week, particularly in China, in violation of the laws. Governments turn a blind eye, either because of a desire to keep investments or because of kickbacks from industrialists. Last November, 120 hours of overtime were recorded, three times the legal limit. Some firms fine any worker who refuses to work overtime. For example, at a Chinese factory making goods for the Umbro sportswear firm, workers are fined $3.60. Bulgarian workers are also fined for refusing to work extra hours. At the «Bed and Bath» factory, workers were taking amphetamines in order to stay awake during repeated overtime shifts, only to find themselves out on the streets after the factory closed down. «I suffer from headaches, diarrhea, stomach pains, back pains and cramps, all because of the poor ventilation, long hours on my feet without any water or food,» according to 22-year-old Fatima, who works at an Indonesian factory producing Adidas, Fila, Puma and Nike clothing. Moreover, their pay is not enough for them to live on. «In order to survive and to be able to put something aside, we need at least $178 a month, but the basic wage is just $98.60,» said an Indonesian worker. In China, workers are paid just $12 a month during times of low demand. Generally, Chinese sweatshop wages are three times below the legal minimum. And there is worse. «While permanent staff are paid irrespective of the amount they produce, I have a daily quota which I must meet, even if it means working overtime without pay,» said a worker in a factory producing Fila, Nike, Adidas and Loto. Major sportswear firms deny the charges, claiming they are not responsible for working conditions imposed by contractors. Nike welcomed the Oxfam report, saying it was cooperating with independent groups to improve working conditions. Adidas said it had implemented a number of regulations that its associate companies had to abide by. Puma expressed reservations about Oxfam’s conclusions. Umbro declined to comment. «These statements of good intent are at variance with the practices of the business model used by these global companies,» according to the report. «Facing intense price competition at the retail end, global sportswear companies place demands on their suppliers to reduce their prices, speed up the manufacturing process, and meet their demands for flexible production and delivery. In response, suppliers transfer the costs down to their workers, making them work longer, faster, and cheaper. Further, the constant relocation by companies from supplier to supplier in search of the cheapest price creates peaks and troughs in demand for labor that lead to job insecurity and a reliance on flexible work forces, employed on short-term contracts.» Nike’s latest annual pretax profits came to $1,123 million, Adidas $409 million, Reebok $195 million and Puma $130.4 million. In order to compete, they push prices down. A Honduran factory turning out T-shirts for major firms was forced to reduce prices from $3.70 to $2.85 per dozen within three years – a reduction that was passed directly on to the workers. According to Oxfam, a Cambodian worker making a Puma product gets just 0.0009 percent of the profits. Mara, a Cambodian worker, has to sew 120 pairs of Adidas pants per hour for just $1.25-1.50; just over a cent per pair.

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