This article initially incorrectly stated that Oberlin College had completely severed ties with Adidas. The mistake was corrected and clarified on October 12.
For the first time in Adidas's history, the German sportswear giant recently lost a contract to produce university apparel over labor rights abuse. Within the last three weeks, Cornell University has decided to sever ties with Adidas for its refusal to pay $1.8 million in stolen severance pay from 2,800 workers who sewed its products at an Indonesian factory called PT Kizone while Oberlin College has removed Adidas from its list of approved manufacturers and will not renew its current contract unless and until Adidas is compliant with Oberlin’s Apparel Purchasing Code of Conduct. Moreover, Wisconsin's attorney general and Adidas are entangled in a lawsuit after the University of Wisconsin threatened similar action.
Meanwhile, this week, PT Kizone workers rallied in Jakarta to demand Adidas pay the $1.8 million in severance, just hours before three million Indonesian factory workers went on strike to protest sweatshop conditions. Adidas deserves the lion's share of the blame—the company contracts with 80 factories to produce its apparel and footwear in the country, nearly double Nike's 44 factories. And back in our hemisphere, Adidas's two largest suppliers have been the targets of unprecedented worker protest amid death threats, illegal firings to repress union activists, and ever-increasing production quotas for poverty wages.
Take one look at the press around Adidas's $156 million deal to plaster its logo across the London Olympics, and you'll see exposé after exposé on sweatshop abuse.
So, what went wrong with Adidas?
In its reckless quest to overtake Nike in the sportswear market, Adidas built a footloose global supply chain to force its factories into cut-throat competition. Adidas has 1,232 contract factories worldwide, producing $17 billion-worth of products annually, while Nike’s 904 factories produce $39 billion in products. Adidas could easily make all its products in far fewer factories; the surplus factories are simply leverage the brand uses to demand lower prices, lower wages, and higher profits.
While Adidas engineers these sweatshop conditions, the brand invests millions of dollars a year to whitewash its image through sophisticated “corporate social responsibility” schemes.
But this time, students and workers are gearing up for their biggest fight yet to force Adidas to accept responsibility for its subcontracted workers. The campaign is spearheaded by United Students Against Sweatshops, the same organization that, in 2009, forced Nike to pay $1.5 million in severance to 1,800 of its formerly subcontracted Honduran workers.
When The Fox Guards the Henhouse
Ever since the mid-1990s, when police found seventy-two Thai garment workers locked inside a factory in El Monte making apparel for department stores, and activists exposed child labor in factories producing Kathie Lee Gifford garments, apparel brands have been scrambling to hide the shameful truth of their business model.
Their response was twofold. First, they created front groups like the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an organization funded by Adidas and other brands to “monitor” apparel production. Second, brands amassed vast CSR departments staffed by hundreds of jargon-peddling communications staffers who crafted elaborate corporate codes of conduct enshrining, in principle, their commitment to workers rights.
But if there’s one thing the global economic crisis has taught us, it’s that corporations cannot be trusted to regulate their own practices. Despite Adidas’ claim that conditions have improved due to its internal audits and “supplier education,” sweatshop conditions have continued unabated throughout its supply chain. In China, the FLA described Apple Foxconn factories as “improving,” shortly before massive worker riots broke out last week, causing the closure of an entire factory. In Pakistan, Social Accountability International, another corporate-funded monitor, gave a clean bill of health to the Ali Enterprises factory just weeks before a tragic factory fire killed nearly 300 workers—one of the largest industrial disasters in the history of capitalism, doubling the death toll of the infamous 1886 triangle shirtwaist fire in New York City.
Who's Really In Charge?
In response to the failure of corporate self-monitoring to produce any meaningful changes in the apparel industry, students have waged strategic struggles alongside garment worker unions in the global South to directly target apparel brands (i.e. the real bosses of the global apparel industry).
In 2008, Russell Athletic, a Fruit of the Loom subsidiary, shut down a factory called Jerzees de Honduras after workers formed a union and attempted to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. Upon receiving reports of the closure, students demanded their universities sever ties with the company for blatant union busting. The campaign culminated in over 100 universities dropping Russell—the largest boycott of a single corporation ever.
The campaign forced Russell to the table to negotiate a historic agreement with the CGT Honduran union. The agreement included a commitment to reopen the unionized factory as Jerzees Nuevo Dia, and to allow workers efforts to form unions at all other Russell factories in Honduras, where the company is the largest private employer. This was the biggest victory the anti-sweatshop movement had seen since its inception.
Since the signing of the agreement, Russell and the CGT Hondruan union have continued to make unparalleled strides in protecting the rights of workers who sew collegiate apparel.
Could Adidas be the next Russell?
The timing of Cornell and Oberlin in kicking out Adidas couldn’t be better. Students are waging campaigns against Adidas across the country, including at the University of Wisconsin, where, for more than a year, students have pressured the university to drop its $11 million contract with the company.
But Adidas won’t go down easy. The company knows that paying subcontracted workers the severance they’re owed could set a precedent that gives garment workers an opening to demand respect and dignity from the brand itself. To shirk this responsibility, Adidas has attempted to offer the PT Kizone workers food vouchers, which they have rejected as an insulting substitute for legally-owed severance pay.
Adidas Is All In Sweatshops
The brand’s slogan is “Adidas is all in,” but it’s fairer to say that Adidas is produced all in sweatshops.
Beyond the factory walls of PT Kizone, Adidas has failed to pay severance in at least three more cases in Indonesia, totaling $13.7 million to nearly 12,000 workers. This summer at PT Panarub, Adidas's main global supplier of soccer cleats, excessive quotas and anti-union repression led to a bloody police crackdown on 2,000 striking workers.
Adidas's flagrant irresponsibility goes far beyond the borders of Indonesia. In July, Adidas's biggest supplier in the Western hemisphere, Gildan Activewear, was the subject of simultaneous worker action across four countries. The workers demanded to meet together with Gildan in response to death threats against Honduran union leaders, miscarriages on the factory floor in Haiti, and Gildan propping up fake unions to attack workers' democratic unions in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. To date, Gildan still refuses to meet jointly with workers' representatives.
The crisis of compliance in Adidas’ supply chain is systemic, and it’s clear that Adidas’ army of CSR representatives will obstruct accountability every step of the way. That’s why USAS has spent the last 16 years building a movement of students and workers to force Adidas and other brands to accept responsibility for their subcontracted workers across the globe. The only question is: Does Adidas really understand how much is at stake?