Your Brand World Cup exploitation starts with the kits

The FIFA World Cup has been built on a decade of human rights violations: whichever way you look, it’s workers from the global South who are exploited.

The world’s attention is on Qatar FIFA World Cup. But this year the beautiful game has been relegated to the side-lines, with controversies around migrant worker deaths, as well as discriminatory laws against women and LGBTQ people taking centre stage.

Whilst the world’s attention is, rightly so, on the migrant workers who have paid the ultimate price for this event, FIFA’s shameful web of exploitation pre-dates Qatar’s involvement, and reaches far beyond the country’s borders. Major sponsors who publicly condemned Qatar’s record on human rights, have looked the other way for decades at FIFA’s reliance on exploitative labour. This begs the question, is it easier for western companies to hold Qatar to account for human rights violations, than to look at their own complicity in decades of labour exploitation?

Major sponsors, media and fans who were quick to condemn the conditions faced by migrant workers in Qatar, are often reluctant to address the same issues that are woven into the fabric of the World Cup. Perhaps it is not as easy when the finger of blame points to those who are closer to home.

Recently, a media investigation highlighted that garment workers producing England football shirts for Nike are paid just over US$1 per hour. Kits worn by players such as Harry Kane and Jack Grealish are made in low-wage factories around the world. In many cases workers are from the same countries where migrant workers in Qatar originate, and suffer the same abusive conditions.

Poverty wages and unsafe factories prevail in the garment industry. Workers from impoverished communities are often recruited both domestically and internationally to work in industrial zones where employers take advantage of favourable trade agreements.  Recruitment fees and accommodation costs are taken out of monthly salaries, severely limiting workers’ earning potential. Workers are often deceived about pay and conditions, and are trapped when their passports are confiscated by employers.

Despite publicly supporting calls for a compensation fund to be set up for migrant construction workers in Qatar, official FIFA sponsor adidas is currently under fire from labour rights advocates for persistent wage theft, union busting and mass lay-offs in its own supply chain.  It is estimated that workers from eight adidas supplier factories in Cambodia are owed $11.7m in unpaid wages. In 2020, 1,020 workers from Hulu Garment, an adidas supplier, were tricked into signing voluntary resignations, so that the factory could avoid paying $3.6m in severance.

In October 2019, workers at Jeans Knit, an adidas supplier factory in India, went on strike when their workload doubled and those who could not keep up were fired. The factory fired 250 workers and harassed others, mostly migrant workers. Adidas failed to take prompt action to remedy the violations. Just recently, two thousand workers at Myanmar Pou Chen, an adidas shoe supplier factory, held a three-day strike over low pay. In response, 29 workers were fired, and union members targeted. These are just a handful of the worker rights violations in adidas supplier factories during the past decade.

The FIFA World Cup has been built on the exploitation of workers, and whichever way you look it is workers from the global South who are paying the price. This is not through lack of money: adidas spent $800m to extend its sponsorship of the World Cup until 2030, Qatari officials estimate that the country has spent $200bn on preparations, and FIFA itself will pay a prize pot of $440m. There is plenty of money exchanging hands, but little will reach the workers who have made the World Cup possible.

This exploitation is by design rather than by accident, whether it is Qatari construction companies, or official sponsors like adidas. Companies pursue the cheapest labour around the globe to maximise their profits. Workers with limited employment options are actively recruited from the same low-wage economy countries. Trade unions are repressed at the earliest opportunity, dashing any chance that workers have of securing better conditions or wages.

The tragic loss of life involved in constructing the FIFA World Cup means that it is too late for many workers. Through its inaction, FIFA and its sponsors have allowed ‘the beautiful game’ to be stained with blood. But it is not too late for the Qatari Government, FIFA and major sponsors such as adidas to take action to mitigate the impact on workers. A coalition of human rights groups are calling on FIFA and Qatar to provide financial compensation to workers and their families.

At the same time, the Clean Clothes Campaign, along with a coalition of over 260 trade unions and labour rights groups is calling on major sports brands including adidas to negotiate with trade unions and sign a binding agreement on wages, severance, and labour rights. It is not too late for this to be a game of two halves for labour rights, if only powerful decision makers will finally put people before profits.

Meg Lewis is campaigns director and company director at Labour Behind the Label.

This op-ed was published on 15 December 2022 on Apparel Insider.

15 December 2022