An Olympic Disgrace

The Olympics are always big business, and the next summer's Games in Beijing may well be the most profitable in history. Much of the money is made through licensing; sale of Beijing Games mascots alone is expected to bring in profits of more than $300 million. But the workers making clothing and other items bearing the Olympic logo are not exactly sharing in this windfall. "No Medal for the Olympics on Labour Rights," a new report by PlayFair 2008, a coalition of human rights groups hoping to pressure the International Olympic Committee to set -- and enforce -- ethical standards, found, at the Chinese factories making official Olympic goods, grotesque disregard for workers' health and safety and for local labor laws. One of the companies involved, Mainland Headwear, which has the exclusive right to make Olympic hats, paid its employees half the legal minimum wage. Other companies were hiring children as young as twelve. Several others require workers to work more than thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as two weeks without a day off, to meet extremely tight deadlines for retailers eager to hawk Olympic goods. One worker said, "To hell with the Olympics product, I am so tired."

Human rights issues will -- and should -- loom large in discussions of next summer's Games, not least because the host is China, a country that is justly criticized for abuses. That doesn't mean, however, that we should join folks like would-be-president Bill Richardson, who's been taking a cue from Jimmy Carter and calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics (over China's lackadaisical response to the Darfur crisis). The Games -- while certainly a huge marketing opportunity for corporations -- are also about internationalism, human solidarity and fun, and a boycott is a slap in the face to athletes who have spent years training. (Other presidential candidates have soundly rejected the idea.) And of course, it's always hypocritical for Americans to boycott other countries on human rights grounds; in this case, the international community can rightly bring up Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and just a few other little problems for which the US is eminently to blame. (Then again, as the New Republic has reported, Richardson may be a wee bit out of his depth on such matters, despite having once been US Ambassador to the UN.) But that doesn't mean we should do nothing. PlayFair 2008 is seizing the opportunity presented by the Games to press for improved conditions in the sporting goods sector. The coalition is not calling on the Olympics Committee to throw people out of work by canceling factory contracts, rather, to live up to its own stated commitment to social responsibility and ethical sourcing by working with the factories to improve conditions. Check out the website to find out what PlayFair 2008 is asking the Olympics, sportswear companies, governments, and investors to do, and to find out how your organization can support its efforts.

Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City. Her work on student and youth activism has been published in
The Nation, Lingua Franca, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Left Business Observer, Dissent, The Sydney Morning Herald and Columbia Journalism Review.

(c) 2007 The Nation

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