Activists Push for Improved Working Conditions in Asia as Olympics ApproachBy Claudia Blume
Hong Kong
03 July 2008

One month before the Beijing Olympics, union members and other labor rights activists are pushing sportswear makers to improve working conditions in the industry. Activists urge global companies and the International Olympic Committee to help stop labor abuses, which remain widespread throughout Asia. Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong.

Most of the world's sportswear is made in Asia, where the industry employs hundreds of thousands of workers. Global clothing brands rake in billions of dollars in profits every year from sports shoes and clothes produced cheaply in countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

Labor activists say very little of that money trickles down to the people who make the clothes. Wages remain low, although the region has been hit by high inflation. Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile, Garment and Leathers Workers' Federation, says that in Asia, workers in the sporting goods industry do not receive wages they can live on.

"Last week in Vietnam, workers told me that a family of husband, wife and three children needed four million dong [about $240] in order to live just basically," he said. "The woman I was talking to earned about one million [about $60] …. If she then worked 60, 80 hours a week, and her husband was doing the same, the maximum figure they could reach was about three million dong [about $180] - so they were 25 percent less than what they needed to live just on basic lines."

Some countries in the region, such as China, do not have independent trade unions that can push for higher wages. Even in countries that do, such as Cambodia, they often have little power.

Ath Thorn is the president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation. He says his organization had no choice but to accept the minimum wage of $50 a month set by the government and manufacturers - although high inflation in the country makes it difficult for workers to live on that salary.

"The government said because they don't want [to] increase higher because [when] we compare with the countries in the area we are minimum wage," he said. "They are afraid that employers [will] not invest in Cambodia."

Kristin Blom, campaign officer for the International Trade Union Confederation - or ITUC - says low wages are just one of many problems for workers in Asia's sportswear industry.

"We see very long days of work, we see a lot of overtime," said Blom. "We talk of 260 hours work a month, that is if you work six days a week, ten hours a day - that's a lot and that's an average for all the workers in some countries."

Blom says often, overtime is unpaid. Other problems include deplorable working conditions that threaten worker health.

Labor rights activists say that in recent years, some progress has been made.

Most global clothing companies hire independent factories to produce their goods, which means they have little direct control over work conditions. But driven by pressure from activists and consumers, a number of global sportswear brands have tried to improve conditions in factories they hire.

Vietnamese workers work at a sportswear production line for Nike at the Nha Be garment company in Ho Chi Minh City (File)Caitlin Morris, who directs social responsibility programs for sportswear manufacturer Nike, says her company is trying to change things in factories it uses.

"One of the big focuses for us was moving from just being a compliance function to how do you build capacity with factories," she said. "And specifically, how do you build human resource management systems that change the dynamic between management and worker, where management of factories really start to view labor as an asset rather than a commodity."

Labor rights activists say now sportswear companies are more aware that working conditions need to be improved. But they say only a small number of leading brands have taken action. To change that, the ITUC and other labor rights organization met with global sportswear manufacturers in Hong Kong recently to discuss what can be done.

The activists say global companies can, for example, join forces to pressure factory owners, since many produce goods for several different companies.

Activists point out that the sportswear industry is central to the Olympics. Global brands spend millions of dollars on sponsorship and licensing fees to be associated with the world's top sporting event. The "Play Fair" campaign, founded by international trade unions and other labor organizations, urges sportswear companies and the International Olympic Committee to act to help workers.

"What we would like to see most of the all is that the IOC takes up these kind of questions in their - they have contracts they use for the host cities, and also for all of their supply chains," said Blom. "And there are no labor conditions in these contracts, and that's what we would really like to see."

The "Play Fair" campaign started four years ago, before the Olympics in Athens, but Blom says not much has been achieved. The IOC says it will only look into the matter for the 2016 summer Olympics.

Last year, a "Play Fair" report accused a number of factories producing Olympic merchandise in China of disregarding labor laws - by employing children, for example, or paying wages below the legal minimum. The report got a lot of media attention and prompted Beijing's Olympic organizing committee to investigate the companies. The Olympic product license of at least one the companies was suspended. But "Play Fair" advocates say the Beijing organizers did not bother to investigate other factories producing Olympic merchandise and sportswear in China, which they say may have similar problems.

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