Skip to main content

Running sore

Some sportswear firms have a reputation for exploiting workers. Martin Whittaker looks at how children can explore the issues and discover the real price of a pair of sports shoes

Joanna, a sportswear factory worker, is telling a shocked television studio audience about her working conditions. She earns between pound;35 and Pounds 40 a month and is forced to work seven days a week with compulsory overtime, often until the early hours of the morning. "I don't get any sleep," she says."I just want to fall asleep at work."

Fellow workers in this Far East country, Linopia, have been sacked for failing to meet the demands of the manufacturer, Stitch Up, which is under pressure to meet a tight deadline for the world-famous sportswear brand Big Shot.

Also taking part in this live debate are a representative of the sportswear giant, some Olympic athletes who are sponsored by Big Shot, the factory's owner, the retailer and a trade union representative who wants to secure union rights for the exploited workers.

Linopia, of course, is a fictitious country and the televised debate is classroom role play. The parts are all taken by Year 10 students at Bedwas high school, Caerphilly, in South Wales.

But Linopia has an economy very similar to that of Thailand or Cambodia, and the issues are real. The activity comes from a classroom resource produced by Oxfam called Looking Behind the Logo, which deals with the global supply chain in the sportswear industry. It explores whether the concept of fair play, which is fundamental to sport, is reflected in the lives of the workers who make the clothes that sportsmen and women compete in.

Bedwas high school has devoted a great deal of time to global citizenship issues. It has forged links with schools in Finland and Japan, and raised funding for a home for street children in Kenya. Last year, Year 10 students took part in protests over a proposed waste transfer station earmarked for a factory site opposite the school.

Assistant head and citizenship co-ordinator Sue Rivers is also keen to invite politicians to talk on global issues. Students taking the Year 10 GCSE short course in citizenship recently gave the international development minister, Gareth Thomas, a grilling over war in Iraq.

"I was so impressed," says Rivers."I think it's important to give children the opportunity to question these elected representatives."

The same group is now tackling issues of third world exploitation in the sportswear supply chain using Oxfam's role play activity. It's a way of exploring the impact of globalisation.

Rivers begins by explaining how some large sportswear brands use their buying power to put pressure on manufacturers to drive down costs and meet tough deadlines, resulting in harsh working conditions in factories.

She splits the class into groups that represent the different players in the scenario, and gives them a briefing sheet about their roles and ten minutes to discuss them. Then a pupil from each group joins the "televised" debate. Two Year 10s take the roles of cameraman and reporter to give the event a live feel.

After hearing the plight of the factory worker, and the union's arguments for workers' rights, Lauren Knight, the pupil representing the Big Shot sportswear brand, says she believes responsibility lies with the factory management.

"Why do you make contracts with firms that have such short deadlines?" asks Sue Rivers - the debate's presenter.

"Because people want fashions as quickly as possible and as cheap as possible," says Lauren.

As the debate moves on, pupils begin to warm to their roles. Soon, union leader Emma Hutchings and factory manager Beth Clark are going head to head in an argument.

"It's not our fault," says Beth."If we don't hit our deadline, we don't get paid. And if we don't get paid, people in the community are out of jobs."

The athletes meanwhile, played by a group of boys, seem unconcerned."All we do is train all day," says one."We don't really care what happens, as long as we go to the Olympics."

There are questions from members of the audience. Why, if the factory workers are so unhappy can't they leave their jobs, asks one? There is no other work to be found and they need the money to feed their families, comes the reply.

The debate ends with Big Shot acknowledging that it should give the factory in Linopia more achievable deadlines, and the manufacturer concedes that some union rights should be allowed.

When students return to their seats, Sue Rivers talks to them about the real world - the link between changes in fashion, short-term contracts and unrealistic deadlines for the Far East factories that make the goods.

She tells them about the difference they can make - not by boycotting goods, which can result in workers in the Far East losing their jobs, but by becoming informed about the issues and lobbying the rogue sportswear brands and the organisations they sponsor.

Have the messages sunk in? Kelly Evans and Lauren John, both 14, say they are concerned about the issues debated. They believe that the role play was a fun way of raising their awareness.

"When you're just doing it with the teacher in the front of the class, it's just work isn't it?" says Lauren."But taking part in it puts it all into perspective."

Find out moreTo obtain Looking Behind The Logo, see

carries articles on the sportswear and garment has useful links on garment workers'


The Play Fair campaign is at


* A Thai factory gave workers drugs to help them work all night

* Workers making footballs in China had to work 13 hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week

* Union activists in an Indonesian factory were intimidated and harassed

* Some workers in Vietnam earned less than pound;20 per month; the living wage is pound;80

* The Play Fair campaign, run by Oxfam and others, says Nike, Reebok, Adidas and Puma have now accepted there are issues to address Sources:

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you