Abused, Exploited and Threatened: Women Making NFL T-Shirts

NFL_Shield_mark_c_cmykThis Sunday, more about sometime in the late afternoon/evening, surgeon more than 100 million of people from Alaska to Orlando, food will sit down on their couch, hop on a bar stool or pop open their laptop to watch the most popular televised event of the year: the Super Bowl. A de facto American holiday, Super Bowl Sunday is watched by almost 4 in 5 Americans and is the second-largest day for U.S. food consumption.

In preparation, fans of the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers all over the country will be forking out $25 a pop for an official team T-Shirt.

But some 1400 miles from Arlington, Texas, where this year’s game is being held, the Super Bowl represents a quite different reality.

Welcome to El Salvador, the densely populated heart of Central America, where women are paid 8 cents for each NFL Reebok T-shirt they sew. Put another way, multinational clothing brands and retailers sell shirts made by abused female sweatshop workers at way more than 300 times what these women are paid. Even El Salvador’s Ministry of the Economy estimates that the workers’ wages amount to one-quarter of a family’s basic needs.

Working in an unhygienic sweatshop with temperatures up to 98 degrees Fahrenheit (37 C), the women who sew Super Bowl T-Shirts are literally drenched in sweat as they work for 72 to 92 cents an hour. Regularly forced to work 60 hour weeks under constant surveillance by surveillance cameras, workers sewing shirts for NFL, Reebok (owned by Adidas), Puma, Old Navy (owned by Gap), Columbia, Talbots and Penguin (Musingwear) complain of regular abuse at the hands of their bosses, lack of access to safe drinking water, being cursed at, having clothes thrown into their faces, etc. Any worker who dares to speak up about their rights is immediately fired and blacklisted.

The clothing enters the U.S. duty-free, despite the fact that the factory is in blatant violation of the labor rights standards in the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement.

“Corporate codes of conducts and monitoring of NFL, Reebok, Puma and Gap have failed miserably,” wrote Charles Kernaghan, the Director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, formerly the National Labor Committee. “The U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement has ended in a race to the bottom, with workers stripped of their rights and trapped in poverty.”

“If the NFL doubled the women’s wages to 16 cents per shirt, their wages would still amount to just six-tenths of one percent of the shirt’s retail price,” the group said. “The NFL/Reebok should be able to afford this.”

Don’t let the NFL, Reebok, Puma and GAP get away with this! Tell them to investigate conditions at this sweatshop and do the right thing!

The group is calling on US and Salvadoran Government officials, as well as representatives of the NFL, Reebok, Puma, GAP and the other labels, to meet face to face with sweatshop workers at Ocean Sky Apparel, the Salvadoran company that manufactures T-Shirts for the NFL.

“We are demanding a meeting with the workers, in the Ocean Sky factory, where for the first time, U.S. Government officials together with representatives of the Salvadoran Ministry of Labor and the labels, clearly explain to the workers their legal rights,” they wrote. “This is a necessary first step to end the abuse and to pressure both the U.S. and Salvadoran government to finally enforce compliance with the labor rights protections contained in the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement.”

The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a group which seeks to “Put a human face on the global economy”, has already done some amazing organizing here. Last week the group released an extensive, well researched report on conditions for workers at the Ocean Sky sweatshop in El Salvador, getting a bit of press attention and more importantly the attention of the companies.

Ocean Sky management at the sweatshop responded to the report’s publication by threatening factory workers, specifically telling them that anyone caught bringing a cellphone or camera into the facility “will have serious problems.” El Salvador’s Ministry of Labor has yet to respond to the report.

But things are already moving quickly, and yesterday representatives from Adidas, Reebok, Puma and the GAP arrived in El Salvador to investigate allegations of worker abuse at the Ocean Sky factory.

So what’s the problem? Both the companies, and the Ministry of Labor, have no plans to even meet with workers, let along come up with a plan to improve working conditions and worker compensation.

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Photo: Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights