Leading article: The battle for the soul of the Olympic Games

The working conditions reported at factories making Team GB Olympics kit are truly appalling

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The Independent Online

So much for "the most ethical Olympics ever". The sponsorship of Dow Chemical, with its corporate ancestral links with the Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, was troubling enough. The evidence uncovered by this newspaper of the sweatshop conditions in which the Adidas-made official Team GB kits are being manufactured renders the claim wholly preposterous.

The working conditions reported by staff at the Indonesian factories are unconscionable. Workers tell of pitiful wages, unreasonable production targets, appalling hours and even outright abuse. The London 2012 Organising Committee – which supposedly requires its suppliers to adhere to higher standards – should be ashamed of itself.

In fairness, Adidas is far from alone. Indeed, its activities are only the latest example of a much wider issue: the garment industry can feed the developed world's appetite for cheap, throwaway fashions only by outsourcing manufacturing operations to the low-wage economies of the developing world.

Despite the growing clamour over sweatshops in recent years, improvements are slow. The most recent report from the pressure group Labour Behind the Label exposes woefully inadequate progress towards ensuring that factory workers are paid a reasonable living wage by such high street stalwarts as Gap and H&M, to name but two. Neither are clothing retailers the only offenders. Apple, for example, has faced criticism over conditions in factories making its products, particularly in China.

While it may be easy to point to the problem, however, it is far from simple to solve it. The ethics should be straightforward enough. But it is not enough to make a moral case for companies to institute developed-world labour practices across their global operations – and those of their suppliers – while the majority of us continue to shop 'til we drop with no regard for how our purchases came to be so cheap.

There is also a brute fact of economics that cannot be overlooked. Rightly or wrongly, low-wage factories are major employers in impoverished areas of the world, transferring wealth from richer to poorer countries and providing jobs for thousands of people for whom the alternative would be no income at all.

None of which lets Adidas, Locog or even the International Olympic Committee off the hook. Quite the reverse, in fact.

There is much to mourn in the transformation of the Olympics in recent decades. What was once a testament to both the prowess of amateurs and the power of sport to trump politics has morphed into an almost wholly professional festival of sponsorship, reliant upon such behemoths as Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

That being so, it is the responsibility of the IOC to ensure that the original spirit of the Games is not entirely crowded out by the forces of commercialism. Empty rhetoric about ethics and regeneration is not enough. The committee should use its uniquely strong bargaining position with some of the world's biggest companies to make the event a showcase of the best possible practice. And with such a tone set from the top, perhaps Locog might have paid more attention to Adidas's activities, confirming that the rules on fair wages, at least, were being met. It may not be possible to stamp out sweatshops overnight. The least that the Olympics could do is set a decent example.