There will be celebrations in China today to mark the one-year countdown to the start of the 2008 Olympic Games. But it will be business as usual for the hundreds of thousands of workers slaving away in factories making products associated with the games. Research into four of the factories supplying goods under licence for the Beijing Olympics has revealed massive labour rights abuses, including child labour, forced overtime, workers being instructed to lie about wages and conditions to outside inspectors, poor health and safety conditions, excessive hours of work and employers falsifying employment records. These are the findings in a report from the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF) entitled Playfair 2008.
The Beijing Olympics are likely to be the most profitable ever. Adidas paid between $80-100 million for its sponsorship deal. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has signed up 11 main sponsors paying $866m million between them. The official website boasts that Olympic licensing provides successful companies with an opportunity to “gain considerable profit through producing or selling the licensed products” and “enhance brand image and increase market share and sales”. The sale of the mascot alone will bring in more than $300m in profit.
Quite apart from the Olympics, China’s export success is based on paying low wages. Around 250 million Chinese (16.6% of the population), live on less than $1 a day and 700 million (47% of the population), live on less than $2 a day. Chinese workers are not free to form independent trade unions and can only join official organisations that are part of the bureaucracy that rules China on behalf of a corrupt elite.
International brands manufacturing in China claim their “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) policies are the answer. But the CSR audits are in the main meaningless and easily subverted. Neil Kearney, ITGLWF General Secretary, said: “The Olympic Committee must now remedy the abuses that have been uncovered. Child workers must be removed from the workplace and sent to school at the companies’ expense. Workers must be repaid the monies they are owed in respect of underpaid wages and unpaid overtime. And immediate measures must be taken to bring working conditions into line with national legislation and international labour standards, including the payment of the legal minimum wage and respect for laws on working hours.”
But the IOC has consistently rejected all attempts to force it to take responsibility for employment standards for workers employed in Olympic activities. Their sole criteria is to bring in cash to fund the overblown, drugs-polluted, orgy of corporate power the games have become. According to its charter, the goal of the Olympic movement is “to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play”. But the children working in the sweatshops of China are clearly not going to have the chance to experience any of that.
Penny Cole, environment editor