International sportswear company Reebok has called on its arch rival, Nike, to stamp out slave labour in factories making their goods.
Paul Fireman, chairman of Reebok International, invited Phil Knight, Nike's chairman, to fight "abusive workplace conditions in factories around the world".
Mr Fireman said: "With Nike's leadership in size, the combined market share strength of our brands and Reebok's own experience in human rights, a collaboration could be awesome, much stronger than either of us can accomplish alone."
The approach comes nine months after Christian Aid accused the two firms, the market leaders, as being among those exploiting workers.
The charity said trainers advertised by the likes of athlete Linford Christie sold for around pounds 50 a pair, but the average labour costs for producing them was 46p in China and pounds 1.19 in Thailand. In another investigation, Asian children were allegedly sewing footballs for manu- facturers including Reebok for 10p an hour.
The companies have reacted indignantly to the criticisms and defended their records. Yesterday, Doug Cahn, Reebok's human rights director, again stressed its track record and how Reebok had established its own production standards, to ensure "high quality" work conditions in its factories, four years ago.
"This is a heartfelt invitation on the part of Paul Fireman to take advantage of the power of the two market share leaders. It is a logical extension of the work we have done already," Mr Cahn said.
Graham Anderson, for Nike, said the company had already announced it would have independent monitoring in its factories within a year, in addition to 800 employees checking its factories daily. They would examine Mr Fireman's proposals to see what else could be done. "This is a serious issue, we are trying to make a difference to people's lives," Mr Anderson said.
Christian Aid welcomed the development. Spokesman Martin Cottingham said: "If Nike takes up Mr Fireman's offer it will be a major victory for concerned consumers who have lobbied the sports shoe companies here and in the United States.
"It is unacceptable that these companies make huge endorsement deals with sports stars and market themselves as progressive while short-changing the Asian workers who make the shoes."
Rachel Marcus, for Save the Children, said the Reebok initiative could be an important first step in improving conditions, but nothing should be done which might make matters worse for the workers. When America clamped down on goods made by child labour in Bangladesh, the children were all sacked. She added: "There does need to be independent monitoring to make sure they're not just cosmetic measures."
Mike Dottridge, director of Anti-Slavery International, said international companies had announced their intention to "introduce principles" but said "they don't appear to have much expertise in knowing what the principles should be".
"Although they are well-motivated, some of the codes look as though they've been prepared so quickly it was really to deal with consumer concerns rather than with preventing exploitation," he said.
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