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What Does the World Cup Have to Do With Garment Workers? Plenty.

The rule of fair play isn’t particularly fair to the world’s poorest, human-rights campaigners say.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are believed to have died in Qatar between 2011, the year after the country won the rights to host the World Cup, and 2020. A number of them, organizations like Amnesty International say, were employed in the flurry of infrastructure projects—seven new stadiums, a new train line, 11 new hotels—under extreme heat and torturous conditions that can only be characterized as forced labor. One Guardian investigation estimated that Bangladeshi men migrating to Qatar could have shelled out as much as $4,000 in recruitment fees, meaning they would have to work for a year just to pay off the debt. Other workers have complained of rampant wage theft and coercive contracts. Meanwhile, ticket sales for the tournament are expected to run in the billions.

None of this is news to Aruna Kashyap, associate economic justice and rights director at Human Rights Watch. Considering that the world of sport overlaps with the world of fashion—think of all the stadium swag plastered with swooshes and triple stripes—the breadth of exploitation is likely far worse.

Just last week, the Mirror reported that workers in Thailand were being paid just over $1 an hour to stitch $137 England football jerseys for Nike. (The Just Do It firm said it produces jerseys at multiple price points and is committed to ethical and responsible manufacturing.) In military-ruled Myanmar, dozens of workers who earned less than $2 a day making World Cup gear for Adidas, the game’s official outfitter, were fired after they went on strike to demand higher wages, according to union leaders. (The German retailer told Sourcing Journal that it’s working with the supplier to ensure that any “downsizing” adheres to both the local law and its own workplace standards.)

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There are “close parallels” between the plight of migrant workers in Qatar and “everything that people have read” about garment workers’ grueling circumstances, Kashyap said at a Twitter Spaces discussion last week. It’s a sad coincidence that the World Cup kicked off the same week Bangladesh commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Tazreen factory fire, which killed at least 117 people who produced shirts and jackets for C&A, Walmart and others.

If anything, she said, exploitation has worsened since Covid-19 reared its head. The Worker Rights Consortium estimates, for example, that workers who were laid off in the first year of the pandemic are still owed between $500 million and $850 million in legally mandated severance. And it was only last month that #PayYourWorkers, a campaign endorsed by 260 trade unions and labor-rights organizations worldwide, including the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Worker Rights Consortium, organized a global week of action urging Adidas to pony up what its suppliers owe.

The Tazreen anniversary is a “grim milestone,” albeit one of several for the fashion industry, Kashyap said. It would only be a few months later that the Rana Plaza complex would collapse into a pile of rubble, killing 1,134 workers and injuring or maiming thousands more.

While the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement that emerged from the tragedy, has created a “significant” amount of progress on workers’ health and safety in the South Asian nation, she said, not all brands signed on. Fewer are part of its successor, the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment Industry, which is trying to extend coverage to neighboring Pakistan.

“So I think there has been definite progress in Bangladesh—it’s been driven by really important initiatives that have been developed—but we’re seeing only limited change in Bangladesh,” Kashyap said. “We really need this to expand; more brands have to throw their weight behind credible initiatives if they truly care about protecting workers’ health and safety.”

The European Union’s corporate sustainability due-diligence directive, which the EU Council gave its final green light on Monday, could be a “game changer,” she said, but only if it turns out to be a law with actual heft. Right now its reporting requirements, which go into effect on a rolling basis in 2024, will only apply to a tiny fraction of registered businesses operating in the bloc, its critics say. There is also too much attention being paid to multi-stakeholder initiatives and third-party auditing as demonstrations of compliance and not enough to help rightsholders obtain justice, they add.

“One way to build in some strong teeth is to have some robust civil liability provisions,” Kashyap said. “If there are workers who have claims against companies, they should be able to bring it to civil court.”

Another way to further strengthen the law is to require brands and retailers to scrutinize their own purchasing practices—and, where necessary, fix them—as part of their human rights obligations. This includes ensuring that any prices negotiated cover the cost of compliant production and that timelines are achievable without leaning on excessive overtime.

“Because a lot of the times what’s happening is brands and retailers want ‘cheap’ products…and not actually pay prices that support the payment of living wages or they squeeze the time available to workers,” Kashyap said. “And that kind of creates its own cycle of problems for workers through the suppliers putting pressure on them.”

What is happening—in Qatar and in garment-producing countries—is the devaluation of human lives into “cheap” units of labor. Instead of the better lives they hoped for, workers are trapped in a spiral of debt and despair.

It’s for this reason that the #PayYourWorkers campaign has been calling on brands like Adidas to sign a binding agreement on wages, severance pay and the freedom to organize. Everything else has proven ineffective, labor campaigners say.

“Relying on brands to voluntarily resolve rights violations on a case-by-case basis does not work and will not solve the endemic issues of wage and severance theft in the garment industry,” Ilana Winterstein, urgent appeals campaigner at the Clean Clothes Campaign, told Sourcing Journal.

And as fans filled the stadiums, so too have workers taken to the streets. Last week, a protesting garment worker in Indonesia had a pointed message for Argentinean football player Lionel Messi, who rakes in a reported $30 million a year for endorsing and co-creating a line of sneakers with Adidas.

“Hi Messi, I am a worker from PT Panarub Industry, Indonesia, who made soccer shoes for you,” she wrote on a placard, referring to her employer, an Adidas supplier in the Javanese province of Banten that halved wages between June and August 2020 because orders had evaporated. “During Covid-19 in 2020, Adidas cut my wages and don’t want to pay it back. What about you? Do Adidas cut your contract fee, too?”

#PayYourWorkers says Adidas sources from a number of factories linked to wage theft, which the former Ye collaborator vehemently denies. But labor campaigners point to suppliers like Cambodia’s Hulu Garment, which laid off 1,000 workers in 2020 without paying them the $3.6 million they were owed by law. This past May, 5,600 workers at another of Adidas’s Cambodian suppliers, Can Sports Shoe, went on strike over unpaid wages. The factory responded, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, by having union leaders arrested, whereupon they were forced to sign agreements promising not to stir up more “unrest.”

“[These are] recent examples of how Adidas continues to fail to protect workers’ rights in their supply chain,” Winterstein said. “And they exemplify why Adidas needs to sign the binding #PayYourWorkers agreement.”