business corporate responsibility human rights

The Olympic sportswear brands using sweatshop labour

The Olympics likes to talk up the idea of Olympic values and the Olympic spirit. The London games are based on three specific values – excellence, friendship and respect. High ideals, but despite the best ambitions of the London organising committee, they’re not values that are shared by everyone involved. This week saw the launch of an investigation into sportswear brands and their labour practices, and decency and fair play appear to be in short supply.

Adidas is the official sportswear partner of the 2012 Olympics. It is making the uniforms for the 70,000 volunteers, is clothing the British team, and has exclusive rights to official sportswear. It paid £100 million for the privilege. While it has plenty of money for this kind of high profile showcasing of its brand, it is remarkably stingy elsewhere.

When investigators visited factories in Bangladesh that are producing goods for Adidas, they found workers earning the equivalent of 72p a day. This is below the minimum wage for Bangladesh. Workers did 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week, which is also illegal in Bangladesh.

Obviously this is against Adidas’ stated policies. “Wages must equal or exceed the minimum wage required by law” says the suppliers’ code of conduct on their website. “Employees must not be required, except in extraordinary circumstances, to work more than 60 hours per week including overtime”. So if these factories are contravening company policy and local law, why on earth are they still using them?

Usain Bolt wears Puma. Puma would like you to know that. They’d also like you to know that they have a ‘PumaVision’ for the future, and that they are ‘Fair, Honest, Positive, Creative’. But one of Puma’s garment workers would need to work for 14,000 years to earn as much as Usain Bolt gets from them in sponsorship fees.

Nike is the world’s biggest sportswear brand, with profits of £1.3 billion last year. This is apparently not enough to guarantee a living wage to the workers are the far-flung ends of its supply chain.

This latest report is from War on Want, who got the names of six factories from Adidas, Puma and Nike’s published lists of suppliers. Then they sent representatives to talk to workers, out of hours and anonymously. It’s not hard to do. The companies don’t do it because presumably they don’t want to know. So perhaps they don’t share those Olympic values at all, and shouldn’t be allowed to associate themselves with them. That’s certainly John Hilary’s view: “No companies should be allowed to wrap themselves in the Olympic flag unless they guarantee basic rights to their workers” says the head of War on Want.

What can we do about it? Don’t boycott them, as that just leads to factory closures and makes things worse, but sign the petition here. Write to the sportswear brands, and point out the gaping void between what they say and they do. But it will take a little more than that. Nike, Puma and Adidas are all members of the Fair Labor Association, so that’s not working. Neither is publicly shaming them into cleaning up their act. Their business practices have been repeatedly exposed for twenty years now, and they still aren’t taking it seriously.

War on Want are campaigning for a Commission on Business, Human Rights and the Environment. This would be a government body mandated to investigate complaints made about the behaviour of British businesses overseas, and working to prevent human rights abuses and environmental negligence. It wouldn’t directly apply to the three brands mentioned here, since they’re not British companies, but it would deal with our business and force companies to accept responsibility for their overseas supply chains.


  1. Another timely great article. an org you might want to look up is jinta and etiko who supply fairtrade sports equipment. Both based out of Australia but have online services. I do Global Poverty Project presentations at schools and let the PE teachers know that most of the sports equipment they use is made by kids who never get to go to school or play with the equipment they are making…

    1. Thanks, that sounds like a great company. I’ve seen Fairtrade footballs for sale in the UK, but I’m not sure who makes them. I’ve come across a few new ethical brands in the last couple of weeks as I’ve been talking about it, so I might do a round-up post and get those links out there.

      Nice to hear that you’re working with the Global Poverty Project. I work out of the same office as them when I’m in London.

      1. Great to hear you are in the same environment with Simon and the crew as I am sure there is a good amount of cross learning and perspectives going on. You might also be interested in the Live Below the Line campaign and a 1000 mile bicycle ride I am doing in North America in April/May Living Below the Line (eating on less than US$1.50/day) Should be in GPP London office in June and hope to meet you then. Cheers, d’Arcy.

  2. Cool, drop me a line when you’re going to be around and I’ll make sure I stop by.

    I wrote briefly about Living Below the Line last year, but it was right around the time my son was born last year and my wife quickly put the brakes on my suggestion that we take part as a household! Wisely, as it happens, considering the sleeplessness…

    I am planning to do it this year though.

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