Photo: Olympic product factory worker in China (Play Fair 2012)

Cross-posted at In These Times

The world’s greatest games are about to begin in London. But outside the sporting spectacle this summer, few will notice where the real cheating is going on: in Asian factories that churn out plush mascots and other Olympiad gear, corporations have freely exploited lax labor regulations. As the Olympics approach, activists are racing to push the brands behind the games to play by the rules of fair trade and human rights.

Trying to avoid an instant replay of London’s age of imperialism, the Play Fair 2012 campaign aims for accountability and transparency in the corporations scoring massive profits from cheap labor in the global south.

The campaign got a boost recently when organizers of the London Games agreed to take measures to uphold labor standards in the supply chain for Olympic paraphernalia. The agreement came in response to pressure from unions and other activist groups, who published a scathing report on the industry that churns out piles of fluffy “Wenlock and Mandeville” mascots, badges, keychains and other Olympic swag. The report, which investigated two Chinese factories producing London-2012 gear, depicts a global sweatshop on steroids:

as the demand for consumer merchandise mounts in the build up to the Olympics, workers must work excessively long hours of overtime, for very little pay, in often dangerous and exhausting working environments, with employers showing little regard for internationally recognised labour standards or national laws.

The report described Olympics-linked jobs involving “Poverty pay, in some cases below the legal minimum, where workers were not paid enough to cover their most basic needs… Some workers were doing 24-hour shifts, while others were working seven days a week.” As with many other factories in impoverished nations, exploitative conditions persist when the management can easily squelch worker organizing and threaten those who try to exercise union rights.

The hypercommercialization of the London games offers a platform for raising public awareness of labor abuses and for pressuring multinationals to raise standards across the supply chain. According to the agreement announced in late February, the London Olympic authorities have made significant strides toward establishing a labor code of ethics, including:

  • The publication of the names and locations of the factories in China and the UK covering 72 per cent of the licensed products produced for London 2012, with a focus on licensees with production remaining.
  • Making information about employment rights – based on national laws and on LOCOG’s ethical code – available in Chinese and English, and establishing a Chinese language hotline so that workers can complain if their rights are being violated.
  • Providing training to some of the workers in Olympic supply chains to make them more aware of their rights.

The long-term effectiveness of this accord remains to be seen; the games are designed to maximize commercial profit and not long enough to bring a sea change in the global manufacturing system. Historically, mass sporting events, the Olympics as well as smaller ventures like the Commonwealth Games,  tend to be a bonanza for corporations at the expense of local residents (facing mass displacement to clear space for the events) and workers around the world (who not only produce Olympic-branded products but also provide the manpower that builds all grandiose sporting arenas).

While Olympic authorities have agreed to implement higher global standards on paper, will the progress continue after the games are over and the fans go home? Some attempts at outside monitoring of factories have been controversial; the Fair Labor Association’s monitoring of multinational supply chains, as Josh Eidelson has reported, has led to accusations that supposedly independent auditing organizations are more focused on whitewashing corporate reputations than on protecting workers’ rights.

Sharon Sukhram, project officer of the U.K.-based Trades Union Congress, told In These Times that Playfair’s research had revealed corruption in the formal auditing processes used by manufacturers, noting that “audits are notoriously bad at not revealing the real conditions faced by many workers in factories.” In Playfair’s demands for corporate accountability, she added, “Our approach is that workers, and trade unions where they exist, should be central to monitoring and improving conditions as part of progress towards systems of mature industrial relations.”

The convoluted Olympic supply chain doesn’t end with London 2012. Alongside the Playfair report, the charity War on Want recently reported on abusive conditions in Bangladesh factories that supply Olympic sponsor Adidas, where workers suffer excessive hours, degrading treatment and sexual harassment. Playfair says it wants to extend its advocacy campaigns to the organizing process of the Rio 2016 Games as well.

One young Chinese worker interviewed in the Playfair report described her plight–poverty wages, exhausting hours and chemical exposures on the job–in a voice that will be drowned out by the cheering crowds in the stands this summer: “Consumers may feel the Olympics mascots are fun and cute, they will never think of the hard work, low wage and bad food we have in the factory.”

Consumer advocates and labor groups see the Games not just as an athletic competition but as a global test of social ethics. Yet as the commercialization of international sports intensifies, activists will have to remain vigilant long after London’s closing ceremony. Global exploitation endures longer, and reaches wider, than the gaze of Olympic spectators.