The Olympic Torch lit a path around the world. From the hip streets of San Francisco, exhilarating cafes of Paris, all the way to the exotic outskirts of Beijing.
The Olympics have opened our eyes to the differences in culture, sociology and economy of countless countries. Unfortunately, our eyes have also been opened to unbelievable and sometimes brutal differences in how workers are treated.
Perhaps we can understand the differences in worker’s rights between Western society and Eastern society. In the United States, we have a relatively short modern social history (only a few hundred years). Worker’s rights were born from the Industrial Era when workers began to rise up against oppressive factory supervisors.
The sociology of this era is founded in Western individualism and self-reliance. Today, Western attitude and social expectations are cut from this same fabric. There’s no sense of social “castes” that one cannot break from. Instead there are classes, which can be overcome (even though this is proving to be more and more difficult). Western individualism calls for assertiveness and questioning, even when peers disapprove.
In Eastern culture, there still exists a sense of a caste-like society, rooted in poverty and fear. Unlike current Western culture, the East has thousands of years of social development. This sociology is heavily rooted in social interconnection (rather than rugged individualism). As a result, many people of this social background are willing to withstand the unthinkable, if it means their families and societies will benefit and find their actions acceptable.
This social construction has led to deplorable situations where desperately impoverished people have given into working at factories and sweatshops to benefit their families. This social construction has also led to an inherent disrespect between large global companies that use desperation as a tool for hiring and supplying product.
This year, the Olympics made an outcry against these conditions that Eastern men, women and children have tolerated just to survive. We saw children barely old enough to read and write working 18 hour days, alongside parents just to live. We also saw harsh working conditions where workers weren’t given breaks and mercy was unheard of. And all of this benefited China and global corporations to the tune of over $100 million dollars!
It may seem an insurmountable task to demand Fair Trade for these producers and impoverished people. I believe where there’s a mind and a will, there’s always a way. After all, thousands, if not millions, of impoverished employees in China, India, and Pakistan are counting on us. Each North American and European that buys Olympic gear must consciously make a choice to buy Fair Trade, and spread awareness about what really goes on behind the scenes.
How can we get involved even more? We need to rally behind the Play Fair campaign, and demand producers to become Fair Trade-centric. The first step is awareness. A friend of mine heard a gentleman complaining that the Olympics were about sports, and shouldn’t have politics involved. Particularly, he wasn’t happy that protests were being held for such a memorable event as the torch passing.
My buddy couldn’t help but stop him, and ask him if really understood what the protests were about. Did he realize it was more than just politics, that it was human rights? Did he understand that the balls, shirts, shorts and bathing suits were manufactured by children half his age, working in dirty and unforgivable conditions?
After awareness, we need to pressure Adidas, Nike, Puma and the other multinational corporations to come up with solution-centric programs to address how they can become Fair Trade producers. Their profits have reached record amounts. World-wide pressure to reform the sports trade can edge them closer to reinvesting a more significant portion of their profits back into the producers and employees. In the long run companies like Adidas and Nike both need to understand that happy employees make better products.
The Olympic Torch alone may not be enough to change the world, but it can definitely open our eyes to the reality that so many have forgotten. With renewed sense and drive, let’s convince one of the Top 5 sports brands to become certified Fair Trade by the Olympics of 2010!