At the Olympic Games in Athens this year, the logos of McDonalds, Samsung, Coca-Cola, and other multinational advertisers are saturating the festivities to the tune of USD1.339 million. But the corporate self-promotion and commercial branding won't end when the games come to a close.
Sportswear companies have negotiated USD81 million worth of licenses from the International Olympic Committee, allowing them to adorn their products with Olympic emblems. Behind the five intertwined rings and the Athens 2004 kotinos laurel wreath insignia, hidden from the eyes of the world, non-union, underpaid labour will be sewing the shirts, gluing the shoes, and putting zippers to running suits and track apparel branded as Olympic in working conditions that would make even the most highly trained athlete sweat.
While the sportswear market was valued at over USD58 billion in 2002, and select athletes garner millions of dollars through corporate endorsements - such as football champion David Beckham's USD161 million lifetime deal with Adidas - workers in sweatshops in Indonesia, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Turkey, China, Thailand, and elsewhere are paid a dollar or two a day, while facing hyper-exploitation, unhealthy working environments, sexual harassment, verbal and even physical violence from their employers.
This year, Global Unions, Oxfam, the Clean Clothes Campaign and other groups are aiming to change these conditions by turning the spotlight on the situation of workers producing apparel and athletic footwear for sportswear giants Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Fila, Puma, ASICS, Mizuno, Kappa, and Umbro. They call their campaign "Play Fair." "Play Fair campaigners interviewed close to 200 workers in factories worldwide and in factories producing goods for Olympic brands," says Katherine Daniels, trade policy advisor at Oxfam, "and they found cases of workers working shifts up to 16 - even 18 - hours for pittance wages that are not enough to live on. And they found gross intimidation and violations of workers rights, and intimidation for those who wanted to form or join trade unions."
Organizing around workers' rights in sweatshops poses many challenges, particularly since capital invested in the garment industry is some of the most mobile in the global economy. Campaigners and workers are constantly aware that shops may close down and relocate at the merest sign of labour unrest.
And while the conditions in apparel and footwear factories in the global South may be appalling, sweatshop jobs may often be better than other local jobs. Some critics in developing countries have expressed concern that anti-sweatshop activism might backfire and lead to the shutting down of factories and the loss of jobs.
The issue of the survival of jobs in the garment industry, including in sweatshops, is a pressing concern for other reasons. Many countries will face the devastation of sportswear jobs at the end of 2004 when the World Trade Organization lifts the quotas that have regulated trade in the apparel industry. "On December 31st of this year, those subsidies will be completely dismantled, says Alejandra Domenzain of Sweatshop Watch. "There are entire countries - for example, in Bangladesh something like 70% of their national income comes from their textile industry - [whose] economies are going to be devastated."