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The Actual Brazil World Cup Scandal Isn’t About Thongs

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Michelle ChenThe 2014 Brazil World Cup made big headlines again this week after a controversial Adidas promotional campaign that the country’s tourist board says suggests that Brazil is a lascivious pit of sexual debauchery. As part of the elite club of mega-sporting event host nations, the “emerging” economic powerhouse of Brazil is understandably concerned about its public image and was quick to condemn the thong-shaped t-shirt logos. But officials of this rising star of Latin America seem noticeably less concerned about a touchier scandal buried beneath the pageantry: systematic human rights abuses and labor exploitation.

In recent months, several workers have died on construction sites for stadiums and other huge infrastructure projects designed to accommodate this summer’s football extravaganza, and in the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

In early February, Portuguese technician Antônio José Pita Martins died in a crane accident while working on the construction of the Arena da Amazônia football stadium in the steamy city of Manaus, the largest metropolis in the Amazon basin. The death came after two other construction worker fatalities in the same area in December: Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira, 22, plunged 115 feet to his death from the stadium rooftop. Around the same time, another worker at a nearby convention center site died of a heart attack, reportedly linked to overwork, since workers were being pressed to keep up with the scheduled construction timetable. In November, two others were killed when a crane fell at the Corinthians arena in São Paulo, which will host the World Cup’s opening match.

The fatalities, as well as other labor disputes, have led to work stoppages and threats of strikes, which have further disrupted the already-behind-schedule construction timetable and exacerbated the deadline pressure from the World Cup governing authority FIFA. The possibility of another strike was raised earlier this month after the death of Martins.

Builders union leader Cicero Custodio told Brazilian media, “We have to guarantee the workers’ rights and their safety,” and said the site would be closed the following Monday.

Global mega-sporting events are often marketed as an opportunity to foster growth and cultural exchange, and for years FIFA has issued broad standards—which are not legislation and are therefore nonbinding, but are backed by FIFA’s enormous commercial and political clout—for protecting human rights and promoting good labor practices in host countries. But activists see Brazil’s mammoth investments in stadiums and commercial infrastructure as an impediment to the emerging superpower’s long-term social progress, or even an instrument of oppression, providing a pretext for massive displacement and demolition of shantytowns, as well as the suppression of labor and civil rights.

Of course, the human rights and economic justice issues that have surfaced in Brazil are more the rule than the exception in the arena of international sport. Similar issues with overspending and displacement emerged in the preparations for the Athens and Sochi Olympic Games, as well as the South African World Cup.

In an extensive analysis published in 2012, the Brazilian advocacy network National Coalition of Local Committees for a Peoples’ World Cup and Olympics contends: “If it is true that mega events offer an opportunity for social inclusion of workers through job creation and the expansion of labor rights, this has not been the Brazilian reality.” Whether they are laborers at infrastructure projects, or informal workers who have been “suppressed” by regulations that ban them from working in World Cup commercial zones, the report states, “there is an observable pattern towards increased precariousness of labor” perpetuated by large companies and consortia as well as government agencies that coddle the corporations and fail to hold them accountable.

Workers not only have to worry about injuries on the job, but being sucked into Brazil’s vast underground labor market. Last September, the AP reported that after the construction company OAS forced the workers to pay $250 each for the privilege of getting hired for a construction project at the international airport in SĂŁo Paolo, according to labor officials, “many had to sleep on thin mattresses spread out on the floor and lacked for water, refrigerators and stoves. … While the workers apparently were not held against their will, they were forced to live in conditions so miserable that the Labor Ministry defines them as ‘slave-like.'” For their trouble, they were reportedly offered $3,000 in compensation by the company before being sent home.

Much like overseas migrant laborers (as we’ve reported before, Qatar’s preparation for the 2022 World Cup has generated massive scandals around the abuse of migrant workers), Brazil’s internal labor trafficking networks use recruiters to lure poor rural workers to faraway worksites, where they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation or coercion.

Many Brazilians have been directly uprooted by the projects through forced evictions. In 2011 United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Raquel Rolnik sharply criticized “what seems to be a pattern of lack of transparency, consultation, dialogue, fair negotiation, and participation of the affected communities in processes concerning evictions undertaken or planned in connection with the World Cup and Olympics.”

But Brazilians, who are just emerging from years of post-dictatorship civil unrest and economic turmoil, have special reason to feel outraged. Brazil has developed a strong set of laws protecting labor rights and relatively broad social welfare programs, thanks to president Dilma Rousseff and her administration’s social democracy-inspired populist policies. But the hyper-commercialism of the games has inspired more resentment than national pride, and protests have exploded over the past year, led by youth, workers and the rising middle-class—all frustrated with the government’s failure to resolve massive inequality and the underfunding of social services like public transit.

In an essay in the Progressive last June, María Carrión quoted activist Rafael Lima, who represented his favela Bairro da Paz in Salvador at a community meeting about pending development plans for the World Cup:

We are not interested in waving Brazilian flags or volunteering for the World Cup… We need jobs. We need education. We need land titles. We need health care. And we need to know where this road they are planning to build is going, and who will be affected.”

Julia Neiva, a researcher with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an organization that monitors the human rights records of companies, tells Working In These Times the controversy over working conditions in Brazil’s World Cup preparations, combined with the public backlash against the games in general, reflect a deeper sentiment in civil society that while the country has managed to lift many people out of poverty over the last decade, “now we need equality.” The struggle here is ensuring that government investments are supporting workers and communities in their fight for secure jobs and social dignity—rather than pouring public money into nationalist marketing campaigns and colossal sporting events.

“Countries like Brazil that are claiming to be global leaders need to meet the human rights requirements and human rights standards,” she adds. And unlike the half-finished stadiums dotting the country, there’s no need to build Brazil’s social protections from scratch: “It’s already in our laws, not something that we need to create.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on February 28, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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Exploitation Remains the Name of the Game at Dell’s Chinese Factories

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Michelle ChenThere is nothing newsworthy in the latest investigative report on working conditions in Chinese electronics factories—just the same old story, really: Once again, there’s evidence of systematic exploitation of workers, suppression of labor organizing, poor living conditions and chronic economic insecurity for young workers. What has changed is the intensity of the industry’s resistance to cleaning up the worst labor practices of China’s global manufacturing model. Even as a rising generation of young workers are increasingly disillusioned with harsh working conditions and dismal job prospects, high tech manufacturers are still taking the low road on their rights.

The report, authored by the Denmark-based DanWatch, with support from U.S.-based China Labor Watch and in collaboration with other European consumer advocacy organizations, describes disturbing workplace troubles at factories that supply the computer giant Dell.

It turns out that the chips and motherboards that bring modern efficiency to western offices are made under pretty backward conditions. Through site visits and personal interviews with workers at four factories that supply Dell (all managed by Taiwan-based companies) in Jiangsu and Guangdong, researchers uncovered evidence of numerous violations. At all four of the facilities, employees reported working long hours that sometimes totaled more than 60 a week or exceeded the legal overtime cap of 36 hours per month. In some cases, workers reported working seven days straight, without a day off. This non-stop schedule violates the voluntary standards Dell agreed to under the framework of the Electronic Industry Citizen Coalition (EICC), an industry consortium that promotes ethical sourcing.

The report quotes one worker, Zhao Lili of Guangxi Province, describing physical exhaustion and seemingly toxic conditions on the shop floor:

“Because of the welding, the temperature is uncomfortably high and the smell is toxic. We don’t get mouth protection and I get skin irritation if I touch my face at work,” she says.

Zhao explains the work is exhausting because of the repetitive movements and long hours. “We have to stand up the entire 12 hour shift; to sit down, you have to ask for permission.”

Many, according to investigator interviews and observations, were living in cramped dormitories, with poor quality food and a single toilet for as many as 50 people. Often, employers hired “student interns” to do essentially the same work as regular full-time employees, but with less pay and job security. China Labor Watch Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten tells Working In These Times that this is common practice in an industry bent on squeezing every last drop of profit from its workforce:

The tremendous use of student workers and dispatch or temporary workers is in part a symptom of brand companies, like Dell, driving down prices for production. The factories run on relatively slim profit margins, and the factories attempt to use every trick in the book to cut labor costs, including the use of illegally large proportions of temporary workers.

DanWatch’s investigation aims to implicate the whole electronics-manufacturing sector, but targets Dell specifically because it is a major supplier of electronics to European procurement markets, including corporations and government institutions. Dell has responded to the findings by vowing to strengthen its internal monitoring and claiming that “corrective actions plans are in place” for noncompliance issues it has detected (a recent corporate social responsibility report revealed that most internal workplace audits had also found excessive working hours).

Labor advocates are pessimistic about the industry’s glass-half-full promises.

Following a series of worker suicides at the Taiwan-owned electronics manufacturer Foxconn that provoked public shock, numerous tech companies—most notably Foxconn client Apple—vowed to address supply-chain labor problems and exploitation. But watchdog groups have repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of these voluntary efforts, as they allow multinational corporations to effectively control the oversight of their own supply chains, often through quasi-independent, management-friendly auditing agencies.

But Dell is hardly the only offender in China’s bustling global manufacturing sector, nor is it the first to issue dubious assurances to consumers that their favorite gadgets are ethically made.

Late last month, a group of student investigators who went undercover as workers at several factories in the southern city of Shenzhen revealed that “trade unions in these factories played no effective role in representing the workers or in upholding their rights,” while abuses such as inadequate safety protections, excessive working schedules and minimum-wage violations were rife. The experience is typical for the countless young migrant workers who fuel the tech manufacturing sector. China’s urban economy relies heavily on a vast army of constantly churning migrant labor, and the workforce is becoming increasingly unstable as frustration with the low wages and drudgery of factory work has led to scores of uprisings and wildcat strikes in recent months.

The banner of “corporate responsibility” isn’t enough to quiet these workers’ troubles. What they need instead is a real voice at work, in the form of an independent labor movement. China generally lacks real independent unions, separate from government-affiliated unions that typically work in tandem with management. At several of the audited Dell supplier factories, workers reported “no knowledge of whether they have a trade union or workers’ representative at their factory.” While worker unrest has roiled, activists have accused Wal-Mart, Foxconn and other companies of suppressing or resisting worker organizing in the Chinese workplaces that drive their supply chains.

With the indigenous labor movement only in its fledgling stages, consumer-led campaigns and groups like China Labor Watch might help encourage worker activism. But in terms of achieving systemic, sustainable change in the industry, Slaten says, “Even if consumers could act in unison, the answer would not be to boycott electronic products manufactured in a given Chinese factory. From the perspective of worker interest, this will only serve to get a great number of workers laid off.”

For workers’ interests to supersede corporate interests, change will need to start where the products do: on the assembly line, where workers can act in unison and stand up for their rights. Outside China, the rest of us—community groups, unions, and ourselves as individual consumers—have a responsibility to keep global public pressure on multinationals, showing solidarity with workers both by getting their back and by making sure the bosses get out of their way.

Correction: The names of the locations of factories now properly cite Jiangsu and Guangdong, along with Shenzhen in particular, as the sites studied.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on November 7, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI.

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