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Sportswear: a sweatshop industry

"Postmodernity means if anything coercion" (Cooke, 1988). The counterpoint of the disciplinary subject, honing a body without limits at corporate behest, the 'celebration of excellence', is sweated labour on the fringes of Europe and in the Far East. Oxfam, fair trade and trade union campaigners have highlighted factory exploitation and health hazard in the internationalised manufacture of sports clothing, footwear and other goods in their Fair Olympics report Play Fair at the Olympics, Respect Workers' Rights in the Sportswear Industry, 2004. The report was drawn up for a campaign around the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.

What comes out of the report is an indictment of the labour conditions of flexible specialisation, the post Fordist paradigmatic regime hegemonic in international garment and footwear industries. Ruthless price competition in the USA(1) leaves suppliers in "a market characterised by falling unit prices, juxtaposed with rising production costs [...] Factories are now required to supply smaller amounts on the basis of monthly or even weekly orders. Lead times have been shortened" (ibid, p 6). Corporate giants such as Puma, Fila and Nike, have split production, keeping design, marketing and (at times) retailing functions, and outsourcing production, assembly, finishing and packaging to manufacturers in low wage locations. Through aggressive buying policies, the corporations apply intense pressure on intermediary and factory firms to compete. Contracts are based on short term targets, and a generalised insecurity in the industry (relocation of production is frequent and across borders) leads to an avoidance of standards laid down by both national regulation and international labour covenants. Companies operating as mid chain managing agents of outsourcing, often transnational players themselves, exert their own pressures toward cost cutting and the speed-up of delivery, and impose fines on factories failing to meet these stringencies and deadlines, sanctions passed down to the sweatshop workers, who are then fined for extra material needed to make good mistakes, fined for each individual faulty product, and expected to work unwaged in their own time to meet 'just in time' production targets.

The report interviewed workers in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Bulgaria and Turkey between May 2003 and January 2004. Workers at the end of the supply chain bear the brunt of market and retail pressures, a situation exacerbated by pressure on national governments from institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, to force labour market flexibility and increase the limits of the working week. Governments often turn a blind eye to regulatory infringements. Factory discipline is founded on the authoritarian relations of patriarchy and religion, with sexual harassment and verbal assault of sweatshop workers reported as common. Excessive working hours, a steady erosion of piece rates, forced overtime (well beyond country legal limits), a denial of rights toward collective organisation and collective bargaining, health injuries, casualisation and seasonal fluctuations in employment are the product of this demand reflexive system. Wages of garment and footwear producers often slack to a minimum (or nil) during downtimes. While transnational sportswear companies maintain charters stipulating ethical commitments, the report states that evidence suggests "factory managers [at a local level] simply falsify the evidence during social audits and carry on with business as usual once the inspectors have left" and states further that "The fact that workers are not adequately involved in the current compliance processes has meant that few substantive or sustainable improvements have been made" (ibid, p 7).

Sweatshop workers complain of health hazards inflicted by this regimen, including miscarriages brought on by compulsory overtime-working following shifts, exhaustion, back pain, diarrhoea, dust allergies and respiratory diseases, stomach flu, eye damage, varicose veins, and repetitive strain injuries. Hours are excessive: one Chinese worker complained of working non stop for 13 14 hours a day in peak time; an Indonesian woman was forced to work standing up in a factory all day, without much rest, water or food. Another woman complained of exhaustion and miscarriages brought on by compulsory overtime extending already punitive shifts. Another of disrupted relations with children and family (ibid, pp 20 21). Punitive sweatshop regimes have sparked factory strikes.

There are five people living in this small narrow room. It is very hot, and some of us lose consciousness in the heat. Our living conditions are very bad. Our bosses make us pay so much of our salary for the 'boxes' we live in. They charge us high prices for electricity and water, even though we often do not receive it.
Garment worker from a Cambodian factory, producing for Fila and Puma, quoted by Fair Olympics, ibid, p 20.

We have overtime work until 11 pm or midnight every day. The price they pay us is so low, so there is no point to us working such long hours. If our income was higher, I would have no complaints. But all we have now is exhaustion and a low income. Some of us do not even have enough money to spend on food. It is more than we can bear.
Garment worker in factory supplying Nike, Fila, Arena, Adidas and Reebok, quoted by Fair Olympics, ibid, p 21.

The Fair Olympics report demands (ibid, pp 9 10) that sportswear companies develop credible labour practice directives to ensure suppliers meet international labour standards, including the right to a living wage based on a regular 48 hour maximum working week, no forced overtime, and a workplace free from harassment, along with labour and social protection, and an end to child labour. They state that sporting companies should change their purchasing practices to ensure that these do not exacerbate the exploitation of workers (i.e negotiate a 'fair' price with suppliers that reflects the true costs of production and allows the supplier to meet ethical labour standards, and to develop more long term relationships with suppliers and factories), and to establish collective bargaining and trade union membership as a basic principle for trading. There should be an ongoing dialogue between sportswear companies and the International Garment and Leather Workers Federation via sectoral framework agreements. The report also calls for transparency in the impact of these business operations on manufacturing workers.

The authors charge that the Olympic movement needs to make a serious commitment to respect of workers' rights in the sportswear industry. The IOC, via the various country Olympics and organising committees, should be insisting that the sportswear industry meet international labour standards. The report calls for the IOC to make a public commitment to workers rights in its charter and to reform its rules on licensing, sponsorship and marketing agreements in this light.

Their demands are based on precedent.

  • The report quotes a Code of Labour Practice, negotiated with the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Labour Council of New South Wales in 1998, which was adopted by the organising committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sydney 2000 to cover the manufacture of licensed goods. The code required the payment of 'fair' wages, limitations on working hours, respect for rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining. Although enforcement measures in the initial agreement were superficial (relying on the organising committees rather than the trade union bodies themselves), after much campaigning by Australian unions, in 1999 SOCOG granted the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia the right of access to information about workplaces producing licensed goods and the right to send representatives to speak to these overseas workers (ibid, pp 48 49).
  • On September 3, 1996, the global regulatory body for soccer, FIFA, agreed to a Code of Labour Practice for FIFA licensed products, after it was exposed that child labour was being used to manufacture FIFA sponsored footballs in Sialkot, Pakistan. An estimated three quarters of the world's soccer balls are manufactured in the town. Criteria based on the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work were later included in FIFA licensing agreements. However, the Clean Clothes Campaign (one of the sponsors of the Fair Olympics report) have charged FIFA with a lack of enforcement (ibid, pp 48 49).
  • The World Federation of Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI), a trade association including transnational sports brands, retailers and manufacturers, introduced a revised Code of Conduct in 2000 based on standards outlined in ILO conventions. The code acknowledges the industry's influence on the social and economic conditions of sporting goods manufacture, and commits its members to ensure compliance with the Code in both their own operations and in their suppliers. The report suggests, again however, that "Although the Code is comprehensive on paper, the WFSGI has done little to implement it" (ibid, p 49).

Fair Olympics conclude:

The Olympics can directly influence the sportswear companies by including contractual obligations on labour standards in its licensing and marketing agreements relating to products bearing the Olympic emblem. At the very top of the hierarchy, the IOC is the owner of the rights to the Olympic marks, including the five ring emblem, and is responsible for the overall direction and management of all Olympics marketing and licensing programmes. While it is the national committees and the organising committees of the Olympic Games themselves that actually issue the licenses and marketing contracts, the IOC has the power to determine the overall policies and set the rules. If the movement as a whole made a commitment to respect labour standards, similar to its commitments on protecting the environment, it could play an important role in achieving improvements to working conditions for the many workers who produce sportswear worldwide (ibid, p 51).

Comparisons between corporate profits and elite athlete sponsorship are galling. Pre tax profits of sports corporations match Olympic finance. The report notes Nike 2003 profits of US$1.123 billion (£649.5 million at February 2006 exchange levels), Adidas 2002 US$408.9 million (just under £236.5 million), Reebok 2002 US$195.5 million (£113.07 million), and Puma 2003 US$320 million (£185 million). Prominent sports people get paid over six figure sums simply for an association with corporate brand. David Beckham can expect US$161 million (£93 million) Adidas sponsorship over his lifetime, basketball player Grant Hill received US$7 million 1997 2004 (£4.05 million) from Fila, tennis player Venus Williams, sponsored by Reebok, US$38 million over five years (£22 million), runner Marion Jones US$800,000 (£462,695) per year from Nike, and swimmer Mark Phelps US$300,000 (£173,510) per year from Speedo (ibid, pp 31 32).

(1)The report suggests (p 6) that the average price of a pair of trainers in the USA has fallen rom US$41 to US$36 (£23.72 to £20.83) since 1977, a guide to the price inflation practised by retailers in the UK where brand name trainers are rarely on sale for anything under £100.

This essay is part of the Games Monitor briefing papers available for download from our Media Centre page.