By Ed Mattos, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
“Is it fair to go to a mega sports event and pay a high price for a t-shirt that has been made by an underpaid worker in a sweatshop on the other side of the world?”
This is the question asked by Play Fair 2012, a global campaign organized to draw attention to labor conditions in the apparel industry of the Global South. In the midst of preparations for the 2012 London Olympic Games, Play Fair is seeking to persuade such brands as Nike and Speedo to improve labor standards in their suppliers’ factories. In March the campaign was also launched in Brazil, site of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics. There Play Fair was joined by the Building Workers International [BWI] at a conference. The two organizations want to ensure fair labor standards in the construction of venues for these high-profile events as well.
Play Fair has a game on its website designed to illustrate the conditions under which the highly popular brand–name merchandise is made. Players get a feel for what it’s like to earn £3.79 [about $6.10 US] for a 12-hour day under extreme pressure to meet demanding production quotas. Where they exist, unions are rendered virtually powerless. Where they don’t exist, organizing unions is nearly impossible and always perilous. On the website, an Indonesian worker named Hamdani tells of his experience as a union activist while employed by a factory making shoes for Adidas. There is also an amusing short video at satirizing the labor practices in the garment industry. The website of the Trades Union Congress [TUC] estimates that a Sri Lankan garment worker would have to work for 14,000 years to earn the £8 million [about $12.9 million US] that was Nike CEO Mark Parker’s 2010 salary.
In calling for a day of action on May 1, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance [AFW] announced a recalculation of its proposed minimum wage. AFW cites cost of living statistics as the motivation for the approximately 13% increase which the alliance expresses in units of Purchasing Power Parity [PPP]. PPP is an economic convention used by the International Monetary Fund to equalize currency exchange rates in terms of value for consumers. AFW explains its methodology on their website. If workers producing clothing for the Olympics were paid the AFW in their country, those workers could begin the process of lifting thmselves out of poverty.
This April a report was issued by the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation [ITGLWF]. “An Overview of Working Conditions in Sportswear Factories in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines” is based on original research conducted in those countries, including interviews with workers, managers, and unionists.
The report summarizes information gleaned from 83 randomly selected factories in different regions of the three countries, reducing the possibility that the issues were specific to particular factories or locations.
The research is reported under five categories for each country: Contract and Agency Labor [CAL], Wages, Freedom of Association, Excessive Overtime, and Gender Issues. In each category in each country violations of established labor law were reported.
- Contract labor constitutes an easily disposable workforce as well as an easily intimidated workforce. Even in factories where there is a union presence, contract workers often are required to sign a pledge to refrain from union activity.
- In all cases, wages were found to be insufficient to provide for family needs. Workers reported that they frequently had to choose between one necessity and another. Reports of the payment of less than legally required minimum wages, especially among contract and agency workers, are rampant. This is often due to work rules requiring strict adherence to production quotas.
- With regard to freedom to associate and form unions, the report examines in some depth the practices of garment manufacturers in Sri Lanka. The International Labour Organization [ILO] established a number of rules or “conventions” intended to standardize labor relations throughout the world. Conventions 87 in 1948 and 98 in 1949 affirmed the rights to organize and collectively bargain respectively. While Sri Lanka has ratified both conventions, apparel industry employers routinely ignore them. ITGLWF researchers found that of 250 garment factories in Sri Lanka, only 4 operated under the terms of collective bargaining agreements.
- Again, despite legal standards concerning working hours and overtime pay, apparel industry workers are at the mercy of their employers. Workdays of 12 to 14 hours are the norm, with longer days coming as deadlines approach. Those who ask to be excused from overtime are reprimanded. Many workers reported no premium pay for the extra hours, despite legally required minimums. In some cases, workers who fail to achieve their production quotas are not permitted to leave until they do – without further compensation.
- The Committee for Asian Women [CAW] is a member of the Asian Floor Wage alliance and has stated that "Women workers in the garment industry make up almost 80 percent of the export manufacturing workforce in the developing world” and so poverty wages hurt them most. According to the ITGLWF report, between 71 and 85 % of the apparel industry workforce in the three countries studied is female. Interviews indicated that gender discrimination is common. Employers discourage women from marrying or bearing children. Supervisors commonly abuse or intimidate their female workers sexually and usually without sanction. Legal provisions concerning family leave are routinely ignored.
The report concludes that
“[T]here is no reason to assume that the situation in these three countries is worse than those in other sportswear producing countries.”
The solution is for governments and merchandisers to hold the industry accountable for their transgressions. “Happy talk” is insufficient and the report’s conclusion is that the workers and the unions representing them must have a central role in the monitoring and enforcement of labor standards.
The larger question for consumers is posed by the “[i]s it fair…” question asked above by Play Fair 2012. And that is whether the model of low wages and miserable working conditions for the production of “high end” merchandise is sustainable. As the “Middle East Spring” has demonstrated, misery and despair ultimately provoke social upheaval by those who feel they have nothing to lose. It would appear to be in the interests of the apparel companies to take heed of the warnings expressed by the various labor organizations mentioned. Play Fair 2012 is trying to get their attention and needs the help of fair-minded people. The ITGLWF report lists the brands which sell the products produced in the factories surveyed.
Pressure from the consuming public is critical to changing an otherwise profitable system. The 2012 London Olympics presents an intriguing opportunity. The Olympics were founded on the idea of goodwill and fair competition. Shouldn’t those worthy notions be extended to workers as well? Contact Play Fair 2012!