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China: Group Says Beijing Exploiting Children To Make Olympic Merchandise

An image problem? (AFP) June 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- China has been accused of allowing the exploitation of children and adult workers at enterprises manufacturing official merchandise for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The Play Fair Alliance, a human-rights panel which monitors working conditions, gave details about the charges in a report just issued. It says many workers are receiving less than half of the minimum wage.

The Play Fair Alliance is active in looking behind the glitter and glamour of the Olympic Games to uncover the seamy side of preparations for the world's greatest sporting festival.

With the 2008 Olympics in Beijing approaching fast, the Play Fair Alliance has been examining the factories in China that are churning out millions of pieces of merchandise for visitors to the games, such as officially approved caps, bags, stationery, badges, and numerous other trinkets.

A report just issued by Play Fair is alarming. It says the owners of factories are falsifying employment records and forcing workers to lie about their wages and conditions.

"What our researchers have found is evidence of children as young as 12 years old producing Olympic merchandise," says Owen Tudor, the head of the international department at Britain's Trades Union Congress. "They also found adults earning just 14 pence [$0.25] an hour -- that's half the minimum wage in China, which is already pretty low, and employees [are] forced to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week."

Tarnishing The Brand?

Tudor says this "gross exploitation" is occurring in the name of the Olympics, which is bad for the image of the games. He said the labor movement does not want to see anything similar happening at the next summer Olympics, in London in 2012.

So what should the games' organizing body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), do?

"The IOC needs to include workers' rights in the IOC code of ethics and the Olympic charter," Tudor says. "They also need to commit some resources to investigate working conditions and to ensure that abuses are uncovered and dealt with."

IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies says in Lausanne, Switzerland, that the body is committed to being "a socially responsible leader of the Olympic movement that takes care of the Olympic brand in the best way possible."

She says that the IOC wants to see sourcing done ethically. But she notes that the organizer does not directly manage and control the production of Olympic-related products across the world.

Davies says it thus has to work by exerting its influence and by creating standards agreed on by everyone involved in staging the Olympic Games.

She does not say directly what the IOC would do to improve the conditions in the Chinese sweatshops.

Seeking To Pressure China

At the TUC in London, Tudor says Play Fair will be in contact with the Chinese authorities and China's state-controlled labor movement to seek an improvement in pay and conditions for the workers.

He says the power of consumers, trade unions, and nongovernmental groups must be harnessed to make sure that the IOC does more to see that the workers it is involved with are protected. Public awareness is one of the key issues.

"This is one of the best ways of ensuring labor standards short of providing people with free trade unions, which can enforce their own rights at the workplace," Tudor says. "We need to make people aware that when they buy Olympic products, they should be getting something produced in decent conditions; at the moment they are simply not."

Play Fair has been monitoring the Olympics since the 2004 games at Athens, where it organized a campaign to improve conditions for the notoriously poorly paid sportswear workers around the world.