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Workers denounce low wages and illnesses at Brazilian factories of Adidas, Nike and Puma products

Factories that produce for the main sports brands of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 impose exhaustive working routines on employees and pay different wages in units located in the Northeast and the South of the country

Side by side, jerseys at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 display the crests of the national teams that classified for the competition and logos of major sports brands. Nike, Adidas and Puma prevail in the uniforms seen in the Arab country: only six of the 32 teams that are in the World Cup do not have contracts with one of these companies – and were all eliminated in the first stage of the competition.

But while the world’s biggest sporting event increases sales and boosts the revenues of sporting goods manufacturers, workers at factories licensed by the three brands in Brazil need to mute their own pains and injuries caused by repetitive effort over workdays of up to 10 hours. There are other problems, ranging from low wages to restrictions on toilet use – even for pregnant women – seen as a distraction that may compromise production targets.

Brands of Nike, Adidas and Puma are so prominent as the teams insignias on World Cup t-shirts (Photo: Lucas Figueiredo/CBF)

Repórter Brasil interviewed members of 12 labour unions from three Brazilian regions that produce for World Cup brands in the South, Southeast and Northeast regions of the country, as well as several factory employees. The conversations reveal a routine of lack of organization, unity and strength in the face of an industry that imposes hostile working conditions in order to pursue ever higher productivity levels.

The international brands and the companies that own the Brazilian factories point out that regular audits are conducted on their production lines and that they strictly comply with labour legislation.

“Nike is deeply committed to ethical and responsible manufacturing and to ensuring that everyone who makes our products is respected and valued,” says the manufacturer of the Brazilian national team’s jerseys.

Puma believes that “it continues to show its strong policies and efforts to identify and remedy unfair labour practices throughout its global supply chain,” citing as an example the certifications obtained from the Fair Labor Association, a coalition dedicated to improving working conditions around the world.

Adidas, on the other hand, says that it selects its suppliers rigorously to make sure that they “meet the global standards of respect for individual freedom and well-being in the work environment, complying with labour laws and collective bargaining agreements relevant to each worker category.” The full statement can be read here.

But this has not been enough for workers.

“Since the 2017 labour reform in Brazil, what was already bad has gotten even worse. It’s very, very difficult to get any compensation from the company for injuries at work or improvements in the work routine,” says Cida Trajano, president of the National Confederation of Workers in the Clothing Industry (CNTRV).

Pain and controlled toilets

Whether they work in embroidery, on assembly line conveyor belts or fitting rubber pieces into shoes, the workdays of those who manufacture Nike, Puma and Adidas items include many hours in the same position – sometimes standing. The repetitive effort over eight, nine or even ten hours takes a toll, especially on their backs, according to the most common complaints heard by Repórter Brasil.

“There is lots of bursitis, RSI and WMSDs,” Trajano confirms, referring to the acronyms of two common health conditions found in industrial units: Repetitive Strain Injuries and Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders.

Dilly factory in Ceará, where workers spend several hours on their feet to manufacture Puma products (Photo: Dilly reproduction)

Brazilian factories have occupational health staff working in the prevention and treatment of diseases. However, pressured by the fear of looking bad in the eyes of management and losing their jobs, many workers do not go see a doctor to avoid having to submit a medical note and missing work. The high turnover of employees, mostly young people, also ends up hiding complaints about comfort and healthiness. “If you start feeling pain or injury, you are sent away immediately – under some other excuse, of course,” she regrets.

Despite the reports, the union representatives do not know the precise figures on illnesses or accidents at work in the factories, nor do they have records on absences or deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The almost unanimous answer was that “the company does not provide the union with data.”

To maintain high productivity levels, breaks for resting and using toilets are strictly controlled by those in charge of the factory yards. Toilets are locked and supervisors hold the keys, and facilities can be used a pre-established number of times, during a controlled period.

“We want to be able to go to the toilet whenever we feel like it,” says Delirio Ferreira Borges, a worker at Ramarim in Nova Hartz, Rio Grande do Sul state. The company is licensed to manufacture sneakers and football boots for Adidas. Asked by Repórter Brasil to comment on it, Ramarim had not replied until this article was published. This space is open for their views.

In this scenario of restriction, women face the strongest embarrassment, for reasons that vary from pregnancy to menstrual periods – which require more frequent toilet trips.

Working in Jequié, Bahia state, where there are assembly lines for the three major sports brands, Carlos André dos Santos – the president of the Union of Workers in Industries and Companies Manufacturing Products and Assembling Footwear of Bahia – claims to have seen degrading situations as colleagues “had their periods and were forced to keep working,” for example.

Inequality and harassment

On Nike’s website, the ‘canary’ model – the Brazilian national team’s main jersey – costs almost R$ 700, which makes it virtually impossible for workers at the brand’s factories to buy it. According to a survey by Repórter Brasil, the average production line wage paid by Brazilian factories of the three main sports brands of the World Cup is R$ 1,400. But there are significant differences between the production hubs in Brazil’s South, Southeast and Northeast regions.

The highest wages in the industry are paid by Ramarim, a company located in Sapiranga, Rio Grande do Sul, and licensed to manufacture sneakers and football boots for Adidas: R$ 1,742.

The lowest wages are paid in Brazil’s Northeast, where there are industries manufacturing for the three brands, and interviewees said they earn R$ 1,240 a month.

Workers at Dass factories in Rio Grande do Sul, such as Ivoti, receive higher salaries than their colleagues in the Northeast, but complain of harassment (Photo: Dass Reproduction)

This is the wage offered in Brejo Santo, Ceará, to employees at the factory of Dilly Nordeste Indústria de Calçados, which produces sneakers for Puma.

The manufacturer says that “the wages are set on a bargaining agreement with labour unions in each of the regions where the factories are located.” The full explanation can be read here. Puma had not sent its views until this article was published, but this space remains open.

The Union of Workers in the Footwear Industries of the State of Ceará is already campaigning to increase their monthly wage floor to R$ 1,300. “We are also demanding transportation stipend, because the company [Dilly] doesn’t offer it,” says Regina Lessa, the union’s treasurer.

The problem is that the union is located in the state capital Fortaleza, 500 kilometres away from the factory, making communication with its representatives difficult. As there is no representative at the factory, the union has to communicate with workers and conduct inspections of working conditions through a WhatsApp group – but the use of the telephone is not always allowed during working hours.

Lessa also reveals that Aniger’s unit in Quixeramobim, also in Ceará, which has been manufacturing shoes for Nike since 2001 through the Cocalqui Co-operative, does not acknowledge the Fortaleza-based union as the representative of workers at its plant. As a result, the employees are left without representation, according to Regina Lessa. Aniger and Cocalqui did not respond to Repórter Brasil’s attempts to contact.

Even where better wages are paid, employees’ harassment by supervisors is an uncomfortable reality. “That is the main complaint of Dass Group workers,” says João Emerson Campos, president of the Footwear and Clothing Workers Union of Venâncio Aires and Mato Leitão. Dass provides services and items for Adidas, Nike and Puma at manufacturing plants in Rio Grande do Sul and Bahia.

Asked by Repórter Brasil, Dass said it prohibits threats and any kind of hostility between its employees. “The relationship and treatment between our associates must be based on dialogue and mutual respect.” The company’s full statement can be read here.

A similar situation is reported by the Secretary General of the Union of Workers in the Footwear Industry of Sapiranga and Region, Leandro Rodrigues dos Santos, where Ramarim (Adidas) is based in Rio Grande do Sul. While it pays the highest wages in the area, it has the most resignations – often due to harassment. “But when we want to take it further and make a police report, the workers give up because they are afraid,” he regrets. Ramarim did not comment.

Harmful, suspicious inaction by unions

There are cases, however, in which the very union will not follow up on workers’ complaints. With approximately 4,000 employees, the Lupo factory in Araraquara, São Paulo, is the second largest Brazilian supplier of the Adidas, Nike and Puma. But when they had problems at work, three employees who prefer not to be named for fear of retaliation had to seek support from the metalworkers’ union, of which their brothers and husbands were members, because the Clothing Workers Union maintained “a close relationship with the company’s management,” they said. When contacted, the Union of Workers in Textile Industries of Araraquara and Region did not provide Repórter Brasil with any explanation.

These factories are often the largest employers in small Brazilian towns, the source of income for entire families, which is why complaining to a law enforcement agency or a union is out of the question.

The economic power of a large sports brand’s factory in medium and small cities can avoid employee complaints (Photo: Adidas)

The labour reform contributed to this scenario insofar as companies no longer need to process contract termination through unions, which undermined the latter’s relevance.

“This was carefully planned, it’s not something random. But civil society only realizes it when the worker is neglected and has no one else to turn to,” criticizes Luís Alexandre de Faria, a labour inspector and head of the team in charge of Combating Slave Labour in the Fashion industry in the state of São Paulo.

Orchestrated dismantling

In Faria’s view, the current scenario is a response to the intensification of inspections that took place between 2010 and 2018, when there were large operations in the industry, which led unions, especially in São Paulo, to demand that authorities hold accountable the big brands that outsource their production for smaller brands and sub-outsource it to small workshops, many of which are irregular. “If the product belongs to your brand, then you are responsible for it,” he stresses.

For ten years, these operations had forced the brands to take measures to improve their supply chains, but also caused many factories to migrate from state capitals to smaller towns, making enforcement difficult. In Brazil, labour laws are enforced by federal inspectors. State capitals have their local offices, but they do not cover smaller municipalities, which may be served by the nearest municipality, sometimes 200 km away.

The situation at enforcement agencies deteriorated by the lack of exams to replace servants who retired. “It makes it difficult not only to respond to complaints, but also to analyse the supply chain with intelligence tools that would allow us to detect incidents regardless of the complaints,” he points out.

Repórter Brasil remains open to receive further clarifications from those mentioned in the report.

* João Diaz contributed to this article.

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