Wake up America: Olympic scandal reveals true cost of cheap clothes

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Story highlights

  • Senators outraged to learn that uniforms for U.S. Olympians made in China
  • Phasing out of quota arrangements has led to loss of millions of textile jobs in U.S.
  • Jyrki Raina says textile companies must pay prices so suppliers can pay living wage
  • He says consumers must make clear they will pay price for decent conditions of work

Last week United States senators expressed dismay and outrage to learn that the uniforms for American Olympians were produced in China. But this is not new. For years unrestrained globalization has seen textile and clothing multinationals race to the bottom in the search for cheaper and cheaper production.

The end of the Multi Fiber trade agreement saw the volume of textile imports to the U.S. from China more than double from 2004 to 2011. The phasing out of quota arrangements has led to the loss of millions of textile and garment jobs in industrialized and developing countries alike. For example, in 1980 West Germany had 4,055 textile and clothing manufacturers. Now, Germany as a whole has only 690. As it is cheaper to manufacture in countries that do not enforce international labour standards or pay workers a living wage, textiles and apparel are most often sourced from low wage countries such as China, India and Vietnam. Developing countries need jobs for their growing populations, but they have to be good jobs, without exploitation by companies from the industrialized world.

USOC: It's too late to remake Team USA uniforms for London Games

Like with Ralph Lauren for the U.S. Olympic team, a $156 million deal with Adidas makes the company a key sponsor of the London 2012 Olympics. The company is providing sportswear for the British Olympic and Paralympic Associations, and owns exclusive licensing rights for all sportswear sold at London 2012 venues and stores. Like Ralph Lauren, Adidas is not manufacturing the majority of its products in the UK, or even in Europe, but is sourcing its Olympic apparel from a range of low wage countries including China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

Jyrki Raina

What's really 'Made in America'

A worldwide alliance of trade unions and NGOs established the Play Fair Campaign in 2003 to demand that the Olympic principles of fairness and respect are extended to workers producing Olympic goods. In May this year the Play Fair campaign published a report on Olympic supplier plants in China, the Philippines and Sri Lanka that found the working conditions fell far short of the expectations of the London 2012 organizing committee (LOCOG).

Far from being paid a wage sufficient to meet basic needs and provide some discretionary income -- a requirement for all London 2012 suppliers -- workers were receiving poverty wages. Half of the workers that spoke with the researchers in the Philippines told us they rely on "pay day loans" to get through the month, despite working more than 60 hours a week during busy periods. In Sri Lanka workers earned as little as $79 per month, and estimated this was only about one quarter of a living wage.

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    Play Fair demands that multinational companies do more than pay lip service to human rights: they need to pay prices that enable suppliers to pay a living wage, they need to make sure that factories have the capacity to meet deadlines without requiring exploitatively long working hours, and they need to go beyond audits and engage workers and their unions in efforts to truly understand what conditions in supplier factories are like.

    Everyone wants to be proud of the Olympic athletes representing their country and not squirm in their seats when thinking of how the clothing the teams are wearing was produced. It is not right that workers in Indonesian footwear factories produce dozens of trainers each day, yet it would cost their entire monthly wage of $102 if they were to buy a single pair.

    From our readers: U.S. Olympians should go naked

    With labor costing as little as 50 cents in the manufacture of a $100 sports shoe in China or Vietnam, paying a living wage would have a negligible impact on retail price. As consumers we need to tell multinational companies and governments loud and clear that we are willing to pay the price for decent conditions of work.

    Alternative view: Why NOT make Olympic uniforms in China?