Meredith Alexander: The scandal of our Olympic sweatshops

The problem is clear. The women who make our clothes are paid a pittance

Share
Related Topics

The Olympics shine a light on many things. Sporting prowess and the host city's attractions get well-deserved attention. They also illuminate darker elements such as the sponsors' ethical records. Dow Chemical's connection with the Bhopal tragedy may have garnered the most headlines, but it is far from the only harsh Olympic truth. The Independent's investigation into sweatshop conditions in some factories making kit for Team GB highlights the dirty secrets of the industry. Our athletes aren't the only ones whose clothes are made in misery.

In the past few years, I have met staff across the retail industry. Behind closed doors, they admit the same thing: their supply chains hide shocking secrets. The problem is clear. The women – and it is mostly women – who make our clothes are paid a pittance. They are often bullied and forced to work unpaid overtime. Sexual harassment is not unusual. Workers who try to unionise are generally sacked. The experiences of the women interviewed by The Independent are so common as to be clichéd, but no less shocking for being predictable.

Campaign groups have been drawing attention to the problem for years. Companies and shoppers alike have heard it all before. Television shows or articles create a splash and clean up a factory or two, but for the vast majority of workers, life continues unchanged. So if everyone knows the problem, why hasn't it been fixed? Retailers like to say it's because things are too complicated. Countries are too poor. Factory owners are too corrupt. Supply chains are too complex. These points are true, but they are not the real truth, which is that some clothing companies care about profits, not people. If they really wanted to ensure workers received decent pay and humane treatment, they could do it.

The effort to make 2012 the most sustainable Games in history stumbled straight into the clothing industry's dirty laundry. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) has a sustainable sourcing code. But a code is only the first step. Unless decent pay and conditions are written into contracts, codes tend to present aspirations rather than drive changes in reality. Locog also has a complaints mechanism. That is genuinely a big step forward, but it isn't going to do much good for most workers. By its nature it assumes things are generally fine with just the odd problem. But things in the clothing industry are not fine.

Locog's contracts are all signed now so it's too late to insist that workers get a living wage. But it could invest a lot more in helping them safely to access its complaints mechanism. More investigations such as that in Indonesia are also an important way to help. But these approaches can solve problems only one factory at a time. Systemic change requires real commitment from the industry itself.

Meredith Alexander was a member of the Commission for a Sustainable London. She resigned in January over Dow Chemical's Olympic sponsorship.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas