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Olympics agreement improves transparency but challenges remain

May 6, 2012

Following the discovery of worker rights violations in two Chinese factories producing Olympic-branded merchandise, organizers for the London 2012 Olympic Games stepped up their efforts to eliminate worker rights abuses in factories making Olympic-brand products - including becoming the first Olympic Games to disclose the factories where Olympic goods are made. Although abuses continue to be uncovered, this is a step forward for Olympics organizing bodies.

Olympic mascotsIn February, the international Play Fair campaign revealed that a factory in Guangdong, China producing cuddly mascots for the 2012 Olympic games was paying its workers less than the legal minimum wage, and forcing them to work up to 100 overtime hours a month - almost three times the legal maximum. Some workers were on the job non-stop for 24 hours in a row. Similar conditions were found in another Guangdong factory producing pins for the Games, along with reports of child labour and serious health and safety risks.

"The London Organizing Committee (LOCOG) had gone further than any previous Games' organizers in adopting an ethical code and complaints mechanism," said Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the UK Trades Union Confederation (TUC), referring to the strong standards in LOCOG's Sustainable Sourcing Code.  "But as our research shows this hasn't been nearly enough to prevent abuses from taking place."

An improved program

After documenting the abuses, the Play Fair campaign provided LOCOG with a draft of their report, and offered to work together with the Committee to eliminate the problems. The result was a landmark agreement reached in February between the TUC (on behalf of Play Fair) and LOCOG, which establishes worker and management training programs in China, a local worker complaints hotline, and new transparency measures. A significant advance in the agreement is the decision to publicly disclose the factories producing Olympic-licensed goods.

"Playfair 2012 welcomes the recent agreement," said Sharon Sukhram of the TUC. "The publication of the names and addresses of factories which are supplying goods to the organizers is a step forward in opening up Olympic supply chains to public scrutiny." 

Because the disclosure is voluntary - LOCOG didn't establish a contractual requirement for its licensees to disclose the information - only ten licensees representing 72% of Olympic production have disclosed so far. Yet previous Olympic Games organizers, including the 2010 Vancouver Committee, have failed to reach even this level of transparency.

"Disclosure enables local unions and labour rights organizations to support workers in their efforts to improve their working conditions and have their rights respected," Sukhram added, "and it makes suppliers more accountable for ensuring that they are respecting workers' rights and complying with national laws."

The LOCOG agreement also sets out plans for training programs and Chinese-language training materials so that workers not only know about their rights under the program, but are able to lodge complaints and access remedies when those rights are violated.

Next steps

More transparency is a positive step, but Play Fair continues to find abuses in factories producing sportswear for the Olympics, and a new campaign by the United Steelworkers is raising questions about union-busting by the company providing gold for the Olympic medals. LOCOG is being called on to act in both instances to give teeth to its policies.

Play Fair campaigners say also that these steps towards greater transparency and accountability must be adopted at the international level if they're to continue to be in force once the London Games are over. Play Fair is asking International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge for a meeting to discuss the adoption of an ethical licensing policy by the IOC.

"Future Games organisers and the International Olympic Committee can build on this progress by building public disclosure into their contracts with licensees and suppliers," says Sukhram. "That's a crucial step if we are to stamp out exploitation in Olympic supply chains."

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