Academic watchdog exposes Olympic mascots sweatshop conditions

A group of Hong Kong-based student and academic activists who work undercover in China to expose working conditions and labour rights breaches in factories, has said manufacturers producing Olympic mascots for London 2012 have violated international codes of ethics and produced merchandise under sweatshop conditions.

A report published on 23 July by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, SACOM – just days in advance of the 27 July opening of the London games – found that factories supplying merchandise for the London organising committee were forced to work up to 120 hours of overtime a month to meet production targets.

This is almost three times the legal limit, according to SACOM.

SACOM said more than £1 billion (US$1.5 billion) is expected from the sales of London 2012 games merchandise. However, “the adventure of [Olympic mascots] Wenlock and Mandeville begins in the sweatshops of China.

“There, the workers have to toil 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week in factories, to produce the London Olympic mascots. Sometimes, workers have to work from the morning till midnight, their own marathons.”

Safety conditions were also highlighted, with staff at one factory exposed to hazardous substances. In the paint-spraying department there was “a fine mist of paint hanging in the air”, and workers said they often left the factory covered in paint. Some reported their saliva changed colour.”

Lack of transparency

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) issued sustainable and ethical sourcing codes in 2008 to ensure that mascots, souvenirs and other merchandise were produced under internationally acceptable standards.

“However, LOCOG's own procedures are far from transparent and [it] refused to disclose a list of the manufacturers and factories supplying the products. In 2011, SACOM had to go to great efforts to identify the LOCOG suppliers,” according to Debby Chan, project officer at SACOM.

“We had to conduct our own research in mainland China in 2011 and in January, May and June this year. However, by then [this year] mascot production was finished. But workers in the factories recorded their conditions of production for us,” Chan told University World News.

“We also had help from mainland volunteers, including students, who became undercover workers in the factories,” Chan said, including during the busiest periods of production in December 2011 and April this year.

Although production of Olympic mascots and merchandise is now completed “we were able to confirm that the factories did not clean up their conditions after our [previous] research,” Chan said.

“We are disappointed that there has been no improvement in labour practices and that there were no efforts by LOCOG to implement ethical practices. We understand they may not have had the time when they were under pressure of production, but reforms should have been made since then,” she complained.

Undercover research

SACOM investigated Yancheng Rainbow Arts and Crafts Company in Dafeng City, Jiangsu province, which manufactured Olympic mascots.

“Workers there were denied copies of their labour contracts, there was no minimum wage for workers, overtime premiums were not paid in accordance with legal standards, salaries were paid one month in arrears and overtime work exceeded two, or even three, times the legal limit,” according to the SACOM report.

SACOM contributed research findings to the Play Fair Campaign on working conditions at two other LOCOG suppliers, “at which the situation was equally awful”.

These were Xinda in Donguguan, Guandong province, where SACOM volunteers and students interviewed some 50 workers outside the factory gates, and Shiwei Toys in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, where 40 workers were interviewed off-site in May and June this year.

“Underpayment, excessive overtime time, hazardous work environments and even child labour was found,” the report said. “The rampant rights violations reveal that the LOCOG codes are really no more than lip service with no commitment to the enforcement of labour rights standards.”

Both Xinda and Shiwei only pay a basic salary to workers at the level of the minimum wage. Overtime premium constitutes 40% to 50% of the overall salary of workers, who only received their salaries at the end of the following month in both factories.

Excessive overtime and fines

“Besides low wages, Xinda systematically delays payment to workers. The labour law states that wages should be paid on a monthly basis and cannot be delayed without reason (article 50). Xinda workers only receive their wages at the end of the following month, which is a blatant violation of the labour law,” SACOM said.

During the production of Olympic products, Xinda employees frequently worked excessive overtime. A respondent showed researchers his pay slips for February and March 2012, when overtime worked was 110 and 120 hours respectively.

Chinese labour law stipulates that monthly overtime should not be more than 36 hours (article 41) on top of a 174-hour regular work shift per month. The overtime worked at Xinda was more than three times the legal limit.

Workers complained that the fines system in the factory was arbitrary. “In the staff handbook, it does not mention punitive fines. However, the factory keeps our salary. It can do whatever it likes. If you cannot accept it, you can leave,” a young male worker told SACOM researchers.

At Shiwei Toys, punitive fines are levied. For example, being up to five minutes late for work leads to a half-day deduction from wages. If a worker is late by five minutes or more, it is regarded as a ‘work stoppage’ and one-and-a-half days of wages are deducted. Two such ‘work stoppages’ leads to a deduction of six days of wages.

Olympic reforms required

With the London games kicking off, “there is now little point in pushing for reform of LOCOG. To stop the repetition of these unethical labour rights practices, the International Olympic Committee should establish a policy and action plan for future Olympic Games,” the report says.

To prevent exploitation in the supply chain of Olympic products in future, SACOM urges the IOC to adopt a code of conduct for suppliers and to provide workers with a copy of the code, publish a full list of suppliers to its licensees, conduct investigations at a number of the licensees’ suppliers to examine levels of compliance, and take remedial actions if gross violations are found at factories.

LOCOG said in a statement this week that the factories mentioned in the report “have been reviewed by LOCOG”.