Saints, sinners and the NFL

The Super Bowl may be bigger than Thanksgiving. Judging by the empty shelves, long checkout lines and jammed parking lot at the local grocery story before the game, the shopping frenzy seemed bigger than Thanksgiving.

After being battered by Katrina, a possible move to San Antonio and a long inglorious record, the New Orleans Saints victory revived spirits for that unique city, and probably the state of Louisiana.

As most Americans were racing down to the bottom of their Guacamole dip and watching the largest sporting event of the year, another Super-Bowl-related race to the bottom went unnoticed.

It’s a worldwide one: a race to the bottom on wages and working conditions.

Two days before the Super Bowl, the National Labor Committee, a global worker rights advocate and watchdog group, issued a report about a sweatshop in El Salvador where $80-plus Peyton Manning jerseys are sewn. The workforce there, about 80 percent women, are paid the equivalent of 10 cents an hour. They are not paid for overtime but are forced to work 61 to 65 hours a week.

“When we were making these jerseys,” the women told the labor center, “we didn’t even have time to go to the bathroom, nor to drink water. Sometimes we didn’t even leave for our breaks so as not to lose time and fall behind in the work. The factory is very hot, despite the fans. By afternoon we are exhausted and tired.”

The Salvadoran workers, employed by the Taiwan-based Chi Fung company, live in shacks and don’t make enough to provide for their families. But many keep working there because it’s a job.

“We knew the shirts were expensive,” the women said. “But now we realize the real price is $80, it makes us angry, because it isn’t fair that they pay us such a low wage. The people [who buy these jerseys] don’t imagine everything we have to bear in the factory when we sew these shirts. With just one $80 shirt, they pay our wages for two weeks. It could be said that with the cost of a single shirt, I have to maintain my family for two weeks. The supervisors are right when they say to us that our wage is not enough to pay for a jersey if we make a mistake.”

Despite the promise that “free trade” deals throughout the Americas were going to “lift all boats,” the exact opposite has happened. The NFL-Reebok contract with Chi Fung has corporate governance rules, meaning inspectors come out to make sure the factory is living up to Salvadoran labor laws and standards approved in trade agreements. But, the Chi Fung factory owner knows when the inspectors are coming. Management threatens the workers to say nothing bad about the company or else they will be fired. The owner slows down production and cleans up the bathroom.

After the inspection, things go back to the way they were.

This is the logic of capitalism, especially “free trade” or de-regulated capitalism.

The U.S. garment industry is just a shadow of its former self, having experienced major plant closings over the last three decades. In the constant search for cheaper labor costs, and maximum profit margins, companies whipsaw workers state by state (for example, North Carolina will guarantee a certain amount of tax breaks, union-free environment, weaker labor and wage laws, as compared to, say, Massachusetts) and country by country (El Salvador’s garment base wage is 72 cents an hour vs. U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 an hour).

Americans pay $80 or more for the jersey. Certainly that money did not go to the workers. It went to the factory owner, the shipping company, the retail store. Yes there are workers and jobs involved in all of that, but each of those entities (from Chi Fung to Swift Transportation to Wal-Mart) has to maximize their profit on the backs of workers.

An endless cycle to the bottom.

So what to do? Well there are big changes and smaller ones that can happen. The big change I’d like to see is socializing profit (the opposite of Wall Street’s socializing risk, or in this case billions in losses.) Put profits back into the human, social infrastructure from where it came – in El Salvador, the United States, Taiwan – and not into the few private pockets. The U.S. has the largest wage/wealth gap now in its history. El Salvador’s wages have also been on the decline. A smaller and smaller amount of people are getting super-super wealthy.

Let the workers run these operations, cut out the private profiteers. That’s a big change. That wouldn’t be capitalism, it would be socialism.

Big ideas are important. And getting things done is too. Like making sure these Salvadoran women are paid what they are owed and not threatened with losing their jobs and the factory closing.

The National Labor Committee advocates working with Reebok and the National Football League to improve conditions at the factory. The labor centers says that a little attention by these powerful businesses to the problem would push Chi Fung into compliance. “With the right intentions and efforts, Chi Fung could be transformed from a sweatshop into a much better than average or even model plant,” it said in its report.

“The worst thing Reebok, the NFL and the other labels could do would be to pull their work from the Chi Fung factory. There is not a consumer in the United States who does not believe that if the NFL and Reebok really wanted to clean up the factory, it would be done quickly and correctly,” the report said.

So the Super Bowl had its Saints, and its sinners. Most of America rooted for the Saints.

Photo: Payton Manning Reebok NFL jersey, which was produced at Chi Fung, and sold at Dick’s Sporting Goods for $80.




Teresa Albano
Teresa Albano

Teresa Albano was the first woman editor-in-chief of People’s World, 2003-2010, leading the transition from weekly print to daily online publishing and establishing PW’s social media presence. Albano had been a staff writer for People’s World covering political, labor, and social justice issues for more than 25 years. She traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad, including India, Cuba, Angola, Italy, and Paris to cover the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. An award-winning journalist, Albano has been honored for her writing by the International Labor Communications Association, National Federation of Press Women, and Illinois Woman Press Association.