From the TUC

Olympics: Building a better world through sport – but without respect for workers’ rights

30 Mar 2012, By

Workers in China paint souvenier badges for the upcoming London Olympics

The Olympic Movement says that is aims to “build a better world through sport” and the Olympic Charter states “Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on…respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”.

For the Playfair 2012 campaign this should mean respecting people’s fundamental rights at work, including the right to join/form a trade union and bargain collectively. And contracts will all licensees and companies providing goods and services to the Games should require respect for internationally recognised labour standards.

But that’s not quite how the International Olympic Committee sees it.

For the Committee, which owns the copyright to the Olympic symbols and heads up the Olympic family this means…

The IOC does not directly manage and control the production of all Olympic-related products across the world. As you can imagine, there are many products and sporting goods sourced for the Olympic Games, the Organising Committees, the 205 National Olympic Committees and the 35 International Sports Federations. The IOC does, however, encourage all parties within the Olympic Movement to work with suppliers who adhere to fair and ethical labour practices. For branded products managed directly by the IOC, the necessary contractual clauses exist in our supplier purchasing agreements.”  – Andrew Mitchell, International Relations Manager, IOC

So what this translates into in practice is exploitative working conditions in Olympic supply chains, as documented in the recent Toying with Workers’ Rights report (Play Fair, 2012). This builds on similar findings in the run up to the Beijing 2008 and Athens 2004 Olympics. Evidence in Toying with Workers’ Rights is based on research in two factories making the Olympic mascot and London 2012 pin badges in China, findings include:

  • Poverty pay, in some cases below the legal limit
  • Excessive working hours, exceeding legal limits
  • Child labour in the factory
  • Unsafe conditions – with no health and safety training for workers
  • No worker representation and workers threatened with dismissal if they ‘incite’ a strike.
  • Evidence of audit fraud, with workers coached and bribed to lie to inspectors.

Workers contracted to make Olympic branded goods for London 2012 in all countries, including China, are covered by the Ethical Trading Initiative base code which calls for freedom of association and the right of workers to form and join independent unions. In China the situation is complicated by the fact that the law only allows unions which are affiliated to the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to exist. In such situation the ETI code allows for parallel means of representation, such as directly elected worker committees. ACFTU structures are changing and in some factories branches are representing workers and allowing for genuine elections of reps.

However in both factories investigated, nothing that even came close to the provisions of the ETI base code was in place. There was no ACFTU branch or worker committee in the factory making pin badges, and workers did not know about their basic workplace rights, or the possibility of collective action to resolve workplace issues. In the factory making London 2012 mascots, workers interviewed reported that the members of the worker committee had been hand-picked by management, and workers felt that the committee had been established purely for the purpose of audits, and so had never used the committee to raise an issue

The preference of London 2012 to use audits to monitor conditions in factories supplying goods didn’t work, and historically, neither has the approach of the IOC worked. Encouraging members of the Olympic family to work with suppliers who adhere to fair and ethical labour practices is taking a soft approach to workers’ human rights. And of course, we have no idea about what’s in the ‘necessary contractual clauses’ that the IOC has with suppliers…maybe the IOC could win gold at a smoke and mirrors event.

Workers need to be at the heart of monitoring and improving their working conditions. The Playfair 2012 campaign welcomes the recent steps taken by the organisers of the London Games, in response to the Toying with Workers’ Rights report. These include:

  • Publicly disclosing the names and locations of factories in China and the UK producing 72% of Olympic branded goods for the Games.
  • Providing information about workplace rights and national laws to workers in its supply chains.
  • Providing training to some workers in the supply chain about their rights and how to complain if their rights are violated.
  • Working with Playfair 2012 and the International Olympic Committee to ensure progress on protecting workers’ rights is built from Games to Games.

Standing on the sidelines, talking about “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles” won’t stop the exploitation of workers in Olympic supply chains. The IOC needs to build on the progress made by London 2012 and take a proactive approach to respecting workers’ human rights.