World Cup Contractor Engaged in Foul Play?

by Tim Newman March 10, 2010 03:27 PM (PT)

A controversy is brewing over the production of figurines of the World Cup mascot, Zakumi. Reports surfaced in January that the factory in China contracted by Global Brands Group, the company that holds the license from FIFA to produce the toys, was violating worker rights including paying low wages, forcing employees to work 13-hour shifts, and employing teenagers.

Following the reports, an audit of the factory was ordered and has been performed by a global firm called Intertek. A spokesperson for Global Brands acknowledged that violations of the company’s code of conduct were identified. Unfortunately, neither the company’s code of conduct nor the report from the audit appear to be publicly accessible. FIFA has suspended the contract with the Chinese factory for the time being due to the abuses. FIFA’s decision was hailed by COSATU, a major trade union confederation in South Africa.

At the same time, Global Brands is now denying the sweatshop claims and arguing that the scrutiny is really due to criticism from South African politicians that the production was outsourced to China instead of employing local workers.

Regardless of the specifics of the case, it is good to see that FIFA is taking a step to monitor labor rights in the production of licensed products. FIFA does have a Code of Conduct for suppliers that includes fair wages, the right to form trade unions, and a ban on forced and child labor and discrimination. I hope that FIFA is conducting due diligence on other supplying companies and taking compliance with its Code of Conduct seriously. I can’t help but wonder if other entities that Global Brands Group has agreements with, like the PGA Tour and Warner Brothers, are holding suppliers accountable for any labor rights violations.

Rights violations in the production of goods licensed for sports events and teams has been a frequent concern for activists over the years. I have written here before about how the NFL has partnered with the Bridgestone Firestone tire company, which has been accused of serious labor and environmental abuses on its rubber plantation in Liberia. Last month, the National Labor Committee released a report alleging that a supplier for the NFL and Reebok in El Salvador forced employees to work overtime, paid low wages, cheated workers out of wages, and harassed workers.

A coalition of unions and NGOs are running a “Playfair 2012” campaign to ensure that sportswear and branded goods produced for the London Olympics in 2012 are made without worker rights abuses. Those organizations have also launched a website called Clearing the Hurdles that reports on different sportswear companies’ efforts to overcome key hurdles to protecting worker rights.

On a note related to South Africa, the World Cup and trafficking, check out fellow blogger Sarah Parker’s petition calling on the U.S. government to urge South Africa to pass a human trafficking bill before the World Cup.

It is important that athletic associations and sporting events work proactively to ensure that they are contributing to higher standards for workers and not exploitation. As sports fans, it is our role to remind them that we take playing fair seriously!

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