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Let the games begin. London has been buzzing with Olympic fever and its attendant political controversies, from the scandalized security apparatus surrounding the event to the sidelining of local working-class communities to make room for the sporting bonanza. But the biggest abuse of power takes place far from the podium: the exploitation of factory workers, who pour their sweat into the Olympic brand long before any sports star dons the logo on the field.
While there was a furor in Washington over Chinese-made Team USA uniforms, the debate over the use of offshored manufacturing labor to make Olympic apparel is just the tip of larger trend of abuse in multinational supply chains. Labor activists with the Playfair 2012 campaign have seized the Olympic arena as a platform to spotlight how labor gets cheated around the world. As we reported earlier this year, the group has for years pressured Olympic organizers to uphold fair labor standards in the sourcing of paraphernalia like sportswear and those adorable stuffed mascots. Those items may seem trivial, but the games are in large part a commercially-driven enterprise, and the corporations that source these knick-knacks in Indonesia, China and other parts of Asia are representative of an international supply chain rife with sweatshops, child labor and union-busting. (We also recently reported on a parallel campaign around Rio Tinto’s ties to Olympic medals and dirty labor practices.)
A follow-up report issued by the campaign in May detailed harsh conditions in Olympic-supplier factories in China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The investigation highlighted abysmal wages, suppression of worker organizing, and poor housing:
*Workers had legal benefits systematically denied to them by repeated use of short term contracts. Employers used these to avoid paying social insurance including pensions, sick leave and maternity benefits.
*Workers were forced to perform overtime under threat of losing their jobs.
*In all 10 factories there was no recognized union or credible workers’ representatives, meaning workers had no voice on pay and conditions. In China workers were threatened with job losses for distributing leaflets that could ‘hamper employer-employee relationships; and in the Philippines all workers interviewed said that they were scared to join a union as they would lose their jobs.