Graham Kelly: Sweatshops shame the sportswear giants

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Umbro, long-time suppliers of kit to the Football Association, and adidas, sponsors of David Beckham, are among sportswear companies that have been targeted by Oxfam for poor conditions prevailing in the factories where their goods are manufactured, in a recent report entitled "Play Fair at the Olympics".

Umbro, hitherto a private company, are preparing for a £200m stock market flotation next month, co-ordinated by investment bank Cazenove for venture capitalists Doughty Hanson, who took an 83 per cent stake in the Cheadle based company in 1999, for £90m.

The harsh realities of life at the bottom of the global supply chain were revealed in Oxfam's report on the exploitation of workers in Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand and Turkey. The expansion of trade under the auspices of corporate giants such as Nike, adidas, Reebok, Puma, Fila, ASICS, Mizuno, Lotto, Kappa and Umbro has drawn millions of people, mainly women, into employment. They work long hours for low wages in arduous conditions, often without the most basic employment protection, with their rights to trade union membership systematically violated by intimidation.

The most serious concern is caused by long working hours and forced overtime. Workers have to put in 10 to 12 hours, sometimes extending to 18, without break. A seven-day working week is becoming the norm during the peak season, particularly in China, despite limits being placed by the law.

Shorter lead times in the fashion industry have increased the pressure on producers, who therefore have a greater tendency to drive their workers harder, paying them less and worsening their conditions. One 21-year-old machinist in an Indonesian factory supplying Umbro, who are contracted as one of the Football Association's five commercial partners until 2010, told researchers how managers could avoid overtime payments by fixing excessive targets: "If you don't reach production targets, you are forced to do unpaid overtime. You have to reach a certain target to reach the minimum wage. If you don't there are two sanctions: work unpaid overtime or get graded with a zero on your production report. If you get zero too many times, you get a warning letter. Too many warning letters and you are demoted. If the worker is demoted, the management will move her around the factory until she is so embarrassed that she resigns."

Many of the sportswear companies have issued codes of conduct covering labour practices. But companies' purchasing practices do not always tally with their ethical policies. And, sadly, governments have ignored international labour conventions.

The trade union movement, locally and globally, has persistently challenged the failures of governments. In recent years it has had some successes. For example, in Bangladesh, the government has given an undertaking to extend the national labour code to all export-processing zones by the middle of 2004.

You might expect any taint on the sports goods industry to be followed by action from the sports institutions themselves, yet the world of sport has done very little - apart from a few exceptions - to call for change. The Sydney 2000 Olympics adopted a code of labour practice for the production of licensed merchandise, Fifa regulated for labour standards on the production of footballs after use of child labour was revealed in Pakistan in 1996, and the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry introduced a revised code of conduct, based on international labour conventions, in 2000.

But the business model that drives globalisation still leaves workers in the sportswear sweatshops miserably exposed to the ruthless pressure on prices and demand for fast and flexible delivery and a constant shift in manufacturing locations in pursuit of cheaper production costs.

The World Bank report "Strengthening Implementation of Corporate Social Responsibility in Global Supply Chains"(2003) concluded: "Further progress will be made by providing more and better education to workers concerning their rights, and strengthening the protection of those rights. This should take place through such means as access to public mechanisms for redress of problems, participation in representative trade unions, dialogue with local civic society organisations and participation in private efforts to implement codes of conduct."

It would be nice to think that before they garner their flotation windfall and bask in the comfort of Euro 2004 alongside England players sporting their leisurewear, Umbro's executives might face some questions from the FA.

In a letter dated May 2003 Umbro stated: "Umbro takes its responsibilities regarding the manufacture of its products very seriously indeed. We work with manufacturing partners who understand and can deliver both our quality and social responsibility requirements." However, research uncovered workers frequently being made to work an average of 15 hours a day, seven days a week during the peak season; excessive production targets and compulsory overtime without pay; wages as low as $5 per month during the low season; penalties for flawed production; and dismissal without severance pay.