Bad Sports: The Return of the No Logo Generation

November 22, 2012

Over a decade ago, it was labour abuses in the sportswear manufacturing sector that galvanised opposition to the WTO. Protests against retail giants like Gap, and sports brands like Nike fed into the nascent anti-globalization movement, and with books like No Logo scoring impressive sales, sportswear became synonymous with low wages and labour rights abuses.

Things are supposed to have changed in the sector since then. Stung by accusations of abusing workers’ rights, firms in the sector claimed to address the concerns of campaigners and erected seemingly impressive corporate social responsibility strategies to prove it. Stories about the deaths of child workers and derisory rates of pay tailed off. To many, it appeared as if the sportswear sector had changed its spots, and that in a world of corporate villains, names like Nike or Adidas were now well below Big Oil or Wall Street Banks.

Not so fast.

Students in the UK are preparing to protest on December 1 against Adidas, as the relationship between sportswear companies and their workers is placed awkwardly in the spotlight once again. Campaigners from the People and Planet group will be targeting Adidas shops across the country in protest against the firm’s refusal to pay severance pay to workers at a factory in Indonesia.

The Student Times reports that, 2,800 workers at the PT Kizone factory were laid off recently and were initially offered no severance pay. Other firms using the factory such as Nike have since agreed to recompense the workers, but Adidas are refusing to pay the $1.8 million that workers are demanding. That isn’t much in the context of a global garment giant.

As Rob Abrams of the Swansea student union puts it, “Adidas are happy to pay $157m to sponsor the Olympics, but won’t pay 1% of that to avoid the destitution of those that made them their profits.” In response, he and other students will be donning Justin Bieber costumes and heading to Adidas stores to demand action (Bieber being the current face of Adidas’ worldwide marketing).

The controversy over PT Kizone is sadly not an isolated example. The truth is that respect for workers’ rights and remuneration of workers in sportswear factories has not advanced as quickly as the techniques for articulating corporate social responsibility strategies and spinning PR stories.

In 2012, the NGO Play Fair released a report on working conditions at factories that would be supplying kit for the London Olympics. In a professionally produced document, the NGO described many of the factories in less than glowing terms, and sites used by Adidas were no exception. In the Amerseas factory in Guangdong, China, for example, the NGO found that “even the workers who earn the highest productivity bonuses and work overtime do not make enough to pay for basic necessities such as food, accommodation and medical expenses” while the standard working day stretched from 8 am until 10 pm, in contravention of local labour law.

When asked, Adidas have commented on issues in Chinese factories, arguing that their workers are paid according to local regulations, which while generally true, is surely more a reflection on their willingness to cosy up to odious political systems than a belief in decent pay.

Adidas have also expressed opinions about workers representation and union rights in key suppliers in the Phillippines, which on closer inspection turn out to be half truths. The Play Fair report looked at Mactan Apparel, where Adidas reported in a voluntary disclosure about its Olympic suppliers that its employees enjoyed “worker representatives through various committees.”

The Play Fair report, on the other hand, found that, when questioned by researchers employees at the factory “said that there is no existing recognised union or workers’ organisation of any type in their workplace.” And those workers also reported that the reason that they had not formed unions was out of fear of their employers’ reactions. If Adidas have tried to ensure a healthy working environment, with adequate respect for workers’ rights, in this instance, they have badly failed.

Which brings us back to Indonesia and the workers at PT Kizone. This year, the campaigning NGO War on Want reported that Adidas workers in Indonesia are paid an average of 34p per hour, with workers reporting colleagues collapsing at work on a regular basis. Workers reported requiring their manager’s permission to go to the toilet and frequent instances of verbal or physical abuse.

Adidas have resorted to every legal evasion that they can mobilize to avoid paying any compensation to the sacked workers. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, they have falsely tried to argue that they had severed their own relationship to the factory before violations of severance law occurred. They have also tried to place sole responsibility for wages and dismissal on the shoulders of the local owners, who, to be sure, absconded illegally leaving their employees in the lurch. But to argue that Adidas had no moral responsibility to workers who, while subcontracted, produced at such low wages, so many profitable goods, is the kind of tactic that Naomi Klein tried to nail in No Logo.

Adidas are showing that they have made far less progress since the 1990s than they would like us to believe. Instead of the responsible custodians of their workers, and friend to manufacturing workers in the Far East, they still operate in conjunction with authoritarian governments and local business elites to exploit them. Startlingly, they often still use the old justifications for not intervening, when they easily could, to raise wages or assist with severance deals. Hell, even Nike look better than Adidas in this regard.

Of course, we have not returned to conditions during the 1990s. The efforts of campaigners and the influence of the web have made it far harder for corporations to whitewash their activities. But what we have gained by advocacy and protest, has been compromised by the growth of spin and PR.

People and Planet are organizing actions on December 1 to highlight the PT Kizone issue at Adidas stores across the UK. Students at Eastern Michigan University, Brown University, the University of Montana are all running campaigns, while those at Cornell and Oberlin College have persuaded college authorities to disinvest from Adidas over the issue, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison is apparently about to do the same.

If your college or university has a contract with Adidas, you might consider joining the campaign.

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