24 July 2004

'Celebrate humanity' - the sporting way

By Marguerite Finn

Readers of a certain age may remember the hit song of the Kinks, "Dedicated Follower of Fashion":
    'They seek him here, they seek him there,
    His clothes are loud, but never square,
    It will make or break him so he's got to buy the best,
    'Cause he's a dedicated follower of fashion.'
With the 2004 Olympic Games only a few days away, these words are a poignant reminder of the enormous power of peer pressure and targeted marketing. Garments bearing leading brand names and the Olympic logo will be sought after fashion items. Perhaps this is the time to think about what happens to the people who make these clothes.

The promotional caption for the 2004 Olympics is "Celebrate Humanity". It is a noble motto and it reflects the aim of the Olympic Charter : "everywhere to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to encouraging the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity". The International Olympic Committee (IOC) exists to see that all connected with the Olympics abide by the principles of the Charter.

Sportswear is big business. In 2002 it was worth more than $58 billion worldwide. Not surprising that all the top brands are vying for a slice of that market - and its profits! Customers constantly demand goods at ever lower prices, forcing companies to choose suppliers who can manufacture at low cost - whatever the 'knock-on' effects on the workers. The majority of workers in the sportswear industry are women whose health, children and family life are suffering from long hours, poor working conditions and low pay. In peak seasons, 7-day working is the norm and in some factories it is common to find workers doing 16-18 hour shifts without proper breaks. One factory in Thailand resorted to distributing amphetamine tablets to workers so that they could work on through the night after their day shift! Human dignity ?

Many factories employ workers on short-term contracts or without contracts at all, thus denying them the legal minimum wage, statutory overtime payments or sickness allowances and banning trade unions. This story is repeated in almost all of the traditional garment-producing countries. Further along the supply-chain, the situation is as bad. The textile bleaching and dying processes carried out in the Tirupur area of Southern India create serious threats to human health and the environment. The people of Tirupur depend on water, which, according to World Health Organisation standards, is not fit for consumption or for irrigation purposes. The treatment of waste water is wholly inadequate. There are 800 bleaching and dyeing units in Tirupur, using 60,000 kilos of chemicals and over 115 million litres of fresh water per day.

What can be done about this appalling situation ? There are two sets of people who can change the way things are done: the buyers for the major sports brands and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The intense competition between companies to deliver constantly changing fashion at ever lower prices has put pressure on suppliers who, in turn, have responded by pushing their workers to work faster and longer. Factory managers claim that buyers use the threat of 're-location' to keep prices down, consequently workers are hired and fired at will and factories have no spare money to invest in health, education or safe working conditions.

In March 2004, Norwich-based Labour Behind the Label, together with Oxfam and TUC, launched the Play Fair at the Olympics Campaign calling on global sportswear retailers and Olympic institutions to respect workers' rights. Labour Behind the Label acknowledges that certain big brands have made progress but others have done too little to meet their responsibilities. Fair Play at the Olympics calls on the British Olympic Association (BOA) to use its voice as the UK representative on the IOC to ensure respect for workers' rights in Olympic-related contracts.

The most influential set of people who can improve the lives of the sportswear workers are ourselves - the customers. Big Brands, unwilling to lose market share, will listen to what their customers want. So, be a 'dedicated follower of fashion' but also be a dedicated questioner about the labour behind the fashionable label.

Contact Labour Behind the Label at 38, Exchange Street, Norwich NR2 1AX. Tel: 01603-610993; e-mail lbl@gn.apc.org ; website: http://www.fairolympics.org/.

I would like to thank Chantal Finney (LBL) and Pamela Lowe (UNA) for the inspiration for this article.