As the World Cup in Qatar kicked off last week, millions of fans pulled on jerseys costing $90 to $150 that were sold by Nike and Adidas, the official outfitter of this year’s tournament. Players, wearing new, brightly colored uniforms, slipped into shiny cleats and shoes that can retail for more than $200.
But what did the people who made these items get paid?
In the case of 7,800 workers at the Pou Chen Group factory in Yangon, Myanmar, a supplier of soccer shoes for Adidas, the answer is 4,800 kyat, or $2.27, per day.
The Myanmar factory underscores the continuing struggle for many of South Asia’s 40 million garment workers, who have long grappled with poor working conditions and wages, and whose troubles have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Now, with the biggest sporting event in the world underway, efforts by some laborers to improve their working conditions have been met with harsh resistance and punishment.
After workers began a strike in October, demanding a daily wage of $3.78, factory managers called soldiers into the complex and later fired 26 workers. They included 16 members of the factory’s union, who were believed to have led the strike of more than 2,000 employees.
In interviews last week, several workers said they believed the factory was using the opportunity to punish workers engaged in organized labor, at a time when Myanmar’s ruling military junta is looking to dismantle democratic structures.
At the same time, rising inflation and a weakened currency are putting pressure on the livelihoods of people in Myanmar. Since last year’s coup, the kyat has fallen more than 50 percent against the dollar, and the cost of groceries, transportation and housing has skyrocketed. One worker, already in poor health, said she had gone three days without food until fellow workers bought her some.
Another worker, 22, who hopes to get her job back, spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation by her employer. “We worry so much about paying the rent and sending money home to our families so that they can survive,” she said. “It was already so hard before, which is why we asked for more money. And now, without our jobs, it is so much harder. I cannot afford to eat.”
In an emailed statement from Pou Chen’s headquarters in Taiwan, the company said that it followed local laws and regulations in handling employees’ salaries and personnel matters and that it respected workers’ right to bargain collectively.
“We are going through an arbitration process with the claimants as per Myanmar’s legal procedure,” the email said, referring to the fired workers.
Adidas also provided a statement. “Adidas has objected strongly to these dismissals, which are in breach of our workplace standards and our longstanding commitment to upholding workers’ freedom of association,” the company said. “We are investigating the lawfulness of the supplier’s actions, and we have called on Pou Chen to immediately reinstate the dismissed workers.”
Most Western fashion and sportswear brands do not own production facilities, instead contracting with independent factories or suppliers, often in the Global South, to make their garments. This means they are not technically the employers of these workers, and therefore are not legally responsible for enforcing labor standards or human rights.
Some companies, such as Adidas and H&M, have recently made parts of their supply chain more visible by publishing factory supplier information for their garments. Many others still do not, including Nike, which produces kits (as soccer uniforms are called) for 13 World Cup teams, including the United States, England and Brazil.
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And transparency about suppliers doesn’t guarantee accountability across the fashion supply chain, which has long been met by union busting — practices intended to prevent or disrupt the formation of unions or attempts to expand membership.
Trax Apparel, a factory in Cambodia where 2,800 workers make soccer shirts for Adidas as well as for the British soccer team Manchester United, laid off eight workers in 2020 after they formed a union to seek better working conditions. The factory’s management said it would reinstate only four of the eight, and only if the union agreed not to fight for the others’ reinstatement or full back pay. Seeing no alternative, the union signed an agreement surrendering these rights.
“I kept waiting for a call, but it never came,” said Sophal Choun, 41, who earned $7 a day at a sewing machine at the factory. “It took a year and a half to find another job — I had to ask my siblings to help support my two young children and take out a loan to keep going with a very high premium which I am now struggling to pay.”
She added: “I believed in a union because I knew we needed protection. Now, many days I just cry and cry.”
Trax Apparel, whose owners are based in Thailand, did not respond to a request for comment.
The predicament of the garment workers is among several serious social issues that have been brought to light during this year’s World Cup. A storm of criticism has been leveled at Qatar over human rights issues, including the authoritarian monarchy’s criminalization of homosexuality and the well-documented abuse of migrant workers.
Seven European nations, including England and Germany, planned to wear rainbow-colored armbands with the phrase “One Love” as a show of support for minority groups, including L.G.B.T. people. But they backed down last week after FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, said that the armbands violated its strict uniform rules for the tournament and that any player wearing one would be issued a yellow card, essentially a warning of misconduct that can lead to suspension.
Some people who applaud these protests think that the predicament of garment workers behind the World Cup kits should be recognized, too.
“While there has rightly been significant coverage of the conditions facing migrant workers in Qatar, there has been a complete absence of focus on the serious rights abuses of garment workers making World Cup kits,” said Thulsi Narayanasamy, director of international advocacy at the nonprofit Worker Rights Consortium. “The ability of workers to collectively stand together to ensure better conditions in their factories is a basic human right.”