Leading article: The gruesome reality of sweatshops

Friday 01 October 2010 00:00

It took years for campaigners to persuade the world's top sportswear manufacturers that they should take responsibility for the conditions in which their products were manufactured overseas. When Nike, Adidas, Puma and the rest grudgingly came round, it was hailed as a turning-point in the relationship of these companies to their sub-contractors in the developing world. Five years ago this newspaper spoke of "the ethical revolution sweeping through the world's sweatshops". It seems we spoke too soon: what was really under way was a revolution in these companies' public relations departments. As our investigation published today reveals, conditions in hundreds of the factories in which the West's favourite sportswear brands are manufactured remain highly unsatisfactory or appalling.

None of the companies has committed to paying overseas workers a living wage, the paltry sum required for a worker to keep himself and his family in conditions of the most rudimentary decency. Many workers do not even make the derisory local minimum wage, which in China amounts to only two-thirds of a living wage. Some factories continue to use bonded, indentured, prison or child labour. Women working in others are subjected to compulsory pregnancy tests; if they prove positive, they are summarily sacked. Supervisors terrorise workers into submission. These are the shocking facts revealed by a detailed examination of the reports submitted by the companies themselves – but as Puma breezily admits, the truth is certainly far worse than that, because some of the sub-contractors lie systematically about their employees' conditions of labour, and in particular about the amount of overtime they work. Special software has been developed to falsify the records of working hours.

The contrast these findings make with the codes of conduct the firms have embraced is startling. "Our vision is for everyone in our supply chain to share a common set of values", declares Adidas. Nike's code of conduct proposes that "high ethics means success". It exhorts its workers "to lead balanced personal and professional lives", and insists that "Nike will strive to pay fair compensation". In the context of the gruesome shopfloor reality, these fine words are contemptible. Instead of trying to dazzle Western consumers with meaningless rhetoric, these firms must divert some of their vast financial muscle into bringing real improvements to the misery of the sweatshops. The industry's pledge to reform remains dramatically unfulfilled.

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