Blood, sweat and tears: the truth about how your sportswear is made.

Factories used by biggest brands; Nike, Puma and Adidas, abuse staff, employ children and pay pitiful wages – while stars earn a fortune by Martin Hickman

A decade after some shoppers boycotted Nike over the issue, the leading players in the £134bn-a-year global sportswear industry seek to protect their reputations against allegations they profit from sweated labour by inspecting factories and blacklisting the worst. However their own reports show they have had only partial success in cleaning up the industry, and that they continue to outsource production to countries where trade unions are banned or restricted.

Instead of the "living wage" sought by campaigners, they pay the legal minimum wage, which can be half the amount deemed necessary by unions and academics to meet the cost of food, shelter, healthcare and education for a small family. When challenged none of the firms denied that some of their supplier factories were "sweatshops".

Nike's corporate responsibility report for 2007/09 paints the most vivid picture of conditions for the million of mostly Asian workers stitching and glueing sports shoes and apparel. It shows occasional or routine abuse by 35 per cent of Nike's suppliers – affecting up to 280,000 workers.

Of 479 factories checked last year, on average 168 failed to meet Nike's standards, meaning they had "serious system failures" or a "general disregard" for codes of conduct. One in five failed to provide contracts, honour collective bargaining, occasionally used children or worked staff seven days a week without a break.
One in 20 flouted wage laws, used bonded, indentured, prison or child labour, abused staff, or carried out mandatory pregnancy tests.

Of 362 factories that supply Puma, one in five – 75 – failed audits two years ago. About half of those flouted rules on hours and pay, and most endangered workers' health. Three-quarters failed to follow rules on the handling of chemicals. Puma says it is committed to trade union-rights, but it outsources to China and Vietnam, which restrict those rights. In its Team Talk report, Puma admitted: "Considering these limitations, the social standard on freedom of association and collective bargaining is admittedly difficult to enforce at many of our supplier factories."

Adidas gives little information about life inside its factories. Last year it ranked 60 per cent of 1,200 suppliers in the bottom three "compliance" ratings, but since it declines to explain the criteria, it is unclear how many failed audits. Last year the German firm warned 38 suppliers that they were so bad they could lose contracts.

Conditions may be worse than publicly stated because factories falsify wage and time records to pass audits. Puma acknowledged "many factories" covered up excessive working hours with two sets of time records – one genuine and one for inspections. The firm said: "It is common knowledge in our industry that software programs have been developed specifically for this purpose, with workers being coached on how to answer questions."

Campaigners say that despite their willingness to document abuses, sportswear firms could do more to tackle long hours and low pay. In a report for the 2008 Olympics, it noted that substantial violations of workers' rights were "still the norm" and there was a "tendency to consolidate production" in states that restricted trade unions.

"Nike, Puma and Adidas haven't acknowledged there is something called a living wage, never mind working towards it."

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