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Olympics Mean Extra Pressure On Sweatshop Workers

by Stefania Bianchi

Olympic Torch Bearer Uniforms Made In Burma Sweatshops (2002)

(IPS) BRUSSELS -- The International Olympics Committee is failing to protect "exploited "workers producing sportswear for this summer's Games, rights groups say.

With less than three months to go for the Athens Olympics, Global Unions, Oxfam International and the Clean Clothes Campaign are saying the plight of thousands of workers is being ignored.

The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are asking the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to take responsibility for the alleged human rights abuse. The IOC is continuing to award licenses to companies whose "practices violate the labor rights of their workers," they said in a joint statement Tuesday.

The coalition of NGOs had launched a 'Play Fair at the Olympics' campaign in March to tackle the sportswear industry that makes millions of dollars from Olympics-branded clothes. They said the huge sales boost in an Olympics year increases pressure on hundreds of thousands of workers.

The 'Play Fair' report revealed a catalogue of misery workers suffer from Bulgaria to Thailand.

The study said sports companies were using "cut-throat tactics" to bring their products out at "cheaper prices, at a faster rate and with more flexibility."

The report said many factory managers are failing to respect labor standards in the face of high-pressure production demands, and that workers are often dismissed for trying to join a trade union.

The groups say some workers on temporary contracts are paid half the wage of permanent workers. Many are forced into unpaid overtime work when they do not complete their piece-rate targets in normal working hours.

At one factory the groups say workers had to do 17-hours shifts over six consecutive days. Union representatives and workers were harassed and verbally abused. Many pregnant women suffer miscarriages because of the long hours, the report said.

The groups now say that the IOC is continuing to duck responsibility by pointing to national Olympics committees.

"It is the IOC which has ultimate authority over licensing of national committees and companies producing Olympics-branded goods," Barbara Kwateng, spokesperson for the 151 million-member International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) told IPS. "Such developments ignore the very spirit of the Olympics."

The groups argue that the Olympic Charter makes clear that "all rights to the Olympic symbol, flag, and motto belong exclusively to the IOC." This gives the IOC "ultimate authority" over the licensing of national committees and the companies producing branded goods, they say.

The warning came as the IOC executive board met Tuesday in Lausanne, Switzerland, to announce the shortlist for the five cities to host the 2012 Olympics.

The interest groups had requested a meeting with board members to raise their concerns. "The meeting scheduled for this week was to see whether we could make any progress on this front," Kwateng said. "The IOC has unfortunately cancelled it."

The sportswear industry is spending heavily on marketing in the run up to this year's Olympic Games "which is supposed to be a showcase for fairness and human achievement," Global Unions spokesperson Guy Ryder said in a statement. "But the exploitation and abuse of workers' rights endemic in the industry is violating that Olympic spirit." The IOC has the means to bring the sportswear industry together to ensure compliance with international labor standards "but the dismissive way they've reacted to the global campaign shows that they don't have the will to do so," said Phil Bloomer from Oxfam.

"The IOC should ensure that Olympics sponsors and licensees meet their responsibilities towards workers' rights by making this a provision in their licensing agreements and putting in place a system for implementation," he said. This would make the Olympics much worthier of celebration."

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Albion Monitor May 22, 2004 (

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