THE WORLD OF LABOR — July 21, 2012

By Harry Kelber

Olympic Scandal Reveals True Cost of Cheap Clothes

Addidas, the giant sportswear company, has won a $156 million deal that makes it the key sponsor of the London 2012 Olympics. But it has produced the tons of athletic sportswear exclusively in a range of low-wage countries, including China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, where workers receive poverty wages and substandard working conditions.

In the United States, there is widespread outrage that our athletes won’t be wearing clothes that are manufactured in our country. A worldwide alliance of trade unions and civilian groups, called Play Fair, are demanding that multinational corporations do more than pay to cover their costs for human rights standards. Companies need to increase their prices to suppliers, so that they can pay their workers a living wage.

Workers were earning as little as $79 to $102 a month for toiling more than 60 hours a week, in violation of Olympic standards. With the cost of labor to manufacturers as little as 50 cents for a $100 sports shoe in China, exhibitors can easily afford to pay workers a living wage with a negligible impact on retail prices.

Report: Millions of People Protest in 80 Spanish Cities

On July 19, millions of people took to the streets in 80 major cities throughout Spain. Fifteen million union members were among the general public who let their voices be heard to protest the latest government’s austerity measures. People involved in the protests included miners, firefighters, judges, public employees, the unemployed and even the army.

The people are also protesting the corruption and fraud of the banks, causing yet another bailout of up to 100 billion euros. While most demonstrations were relatively peaceful, violence erupted in Madrid close to midnight. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd as they tried to approach the Congress building.

The largest unions, UGT and CC00, officially approved the protest along with many professional organizations. In an interesting development, hundreds of national and local police marched with the protesters to demand restoration of their former salaries.

Thousands Stage Strike at Egypt’s Textile Giant

More than 23,000 workers, angered by low wages at Egypt’s biggest textile company, staged a strike on July 22, bringing production to a halt and adding to the challenges facing the new president. The factory of state-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving in the Nile Delta city of Mahalia, was the site of protests in 2008 that sparked a wave of strikes across the country, which was regarded as a catalyst for the revolt that ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak last year.

The latest strike is a test for the newly-elected Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, as he tries to form a cabinet to replace the army-backed administration. Many Egyptian workers, emboldened by the uprising which ousted the Mubarak regime, have gone on strike demanding better wages and conditions. Many of the strikes have died down, but sporadic outbursts continue.

About 7,000 of the strikers staged sit-ins at the factory to call for a rise in their basic wages, a purge of corrupt officials and improvements in conditions of company hospitals. There is strong sentiment for continuing the strike until the demands are met.

No Labor Laws in Iraq; Employers Pick Workers’ Reps

A fight between the major trade unions in Basra and the state’s authorities highlights the lack of real labor laws in Iraq. Saddam Hussein-era laws mean that here, the employer gets to elect the union representatives and ignores workers’ wishes.

According to the website of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), it is the main national trade union center in Iraq. It brings together workers, regardless of gender, age, religion and ethnicity in pursuit of common aims of a free and democratic Iraq. But in May 2011, the union was dissolved. The legitimate unions were placed under the control of Iraq authorities, which ordered sham elections that, in effect, excluded the GFIU and three other Basra unions.

Back in 2007, a new set of labor laws was drafted, but because of internal disputes, it was never ratified. Which means that labor laws still in effect are from 1987. It also means that any unions comprised of public employees, legally speaking, are not recognized.

Foreign Students Ripped Off at Kenya Kiwifruit Labor

A survey by Australian researchers studying health and safety working conditions among foreign students found that many are working illegally in the fruit-picking industry for up to 55 hours a week and being paid rock-bottom wages by their contracting employer. The researchers found 93 students regularly working in Bay of Plenty vineyards and orchards for more than the 20 hours a week allowed by their student visas.

But many of the students are also ripping off New Zealand’s immigration and education system by entering the country on false pretenses with little or no intention of undertaking genuine study. The students who answered the 2010-2011 survey on condition of anonymity were all earning less than the minimum wage of $12.75 an hour (now $13.50).

Almost half (43 percent) were enrolled in courses in Auckland but lived most of the time in Te Puke or other kiwifruit towns. Some said they made the return five-hour trip to Auckland each week to attend some classes, although it was unclear whether all did. Only seven were studying horticulture; the majority were enrolled in business.

Riot Police Used by Government in Steel Plant Dispute

Riot police used tear gas against striking steel workers on July 20 in a rare government intervention in a labor dispute to break up picket lines that have closed up a factory outside Athens since Oct. 31 last year. Seven protesters were detained while an opposition-backed protest rally took place at the gathering site.

It was the first confrontation between Greece’s new conservative government and left-wing opposition parties. The strikers are protesting layoffs at the private Eliniki Halyvourgia plant, which last year employed about 400 staff and plans to introduce more part-time work to replace full-time employees.

“The decision to strike was taken by a majority of workers at a general assembly meeting. That is a democratic right,” said Giorgos Sifonios, head of the strikers’ organizing committee. “We are not giving up our struggle.”

To keep informed about workers and their unions in foreign countries, read our weekly “The World of Labor,” posted here and on our two web sites: : http://www.laborsvoiceforchange.org and http://www.laboreducator.org.