Friday, March 4, 2011

El Salvador, the NFL, the Men in Pink and the answer to the $64 million dollar question

In January, the National Labor Committee issued a report that NFL-licensed clothing is being manufactured in El Salvadoran sweat shops in a free trade zone where workers are surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire fences.  According to the National Labor Committee, the young women working in these sweat shops are subjected to constant verbal abuse and harassment while earning only 8 cents a piece for each of the $25 NFL jerseys they produce.  In its response to the NLC report on the Business and Human Rights website, the NFL passed the ball to subcontractor sports gear company Reebok to address sweatshop labor issues in their supply chain.  And I suppose the NFL might have a point.  I mean, really, what does the 225-pound Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers with his 6-year $64 million contract have to do with a 22-year-old woman in San Salvador who earns 64 cents to sew 8 NFL jerseys?

It may be that Aaron Rodgers has more in common with the young women sewing NFL jerseys in El Salvador than meets the eye.  In fact, Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the NFL players and owners may be the best advocates for sweatshop workers the world over.  Just a few weeks after the NLC report came out, the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, a match-up that caused super-cynic Bill Maher to quip in a Huffington Post blog that “football is our most successful sport because the NFL takes money from the rich teams and gives it to the poor teams,” - pointing out that even football teams from America’s rust belt from cities famed for their manufacturing prowess in bygone days have a chance to compete for the championship.  Unlike football players the world over, American football players are unionized.  Even if they vote to decertify their union in the current battle with the NFL, NFL players will still be recognized as an association able to leverage power against team owners to achieve the players’ goal of a fair-sized piece of the multi-billion dollar industry that American football represents.  

The idea that the NFL should become the champion of third world worker rights is not as crazy as it sounds.  The NFL and its players are a force to be reckoned with on and off the field.  As the wife of an avid American football watcher and die-hard Washington Redskins fan, I have watched more football games than I care to admit.  Not only is there a Washington Redskins lamp on my TV stand - there is a pink Clinton Portis jersey in my closet.  It came as a shock to me last October to pass through the living room to see almost every single NFL player in every single game prancing around on football fields the country over in hot pink gloves, sneakers and helmets.  The remarkably unmanly gear by mainstream standards was part of the NFL’s “Crucial Catch” campaign to raise money for breast cancer awareness.  I found it deeply moving to see these very “manly” men crash and block and tackle and toss around pink-colored footballs while paying tribute to millions of women who suffer and have suffered from breast cancer.  The NFL “Crucial Catch” campaign continues as a brilliant marketing ploy raising funds for breast cancer awareness and putting money in NFL coffers.

The NFL’s “Crucial Catch” campaign shows that the NFL and its players can play a powerful role in the improvement of rights of workers in global supply chains that produce NFL-licensed apparel, gear and electronics.  The NFL licenses not only apparel, but video games and other electronic products as well.  In fact, the NFL and its players have the power to play a key role in revolutionizing corporate social responsibility in electronics manufacturing.  While numerous multi-stakeholder initiatives exist in garment manufacturing supply chains - including the Fair Labor Association and the Worker Rights Consortium - multi-stakeholder and other CSR initiatives in the global electronics manufacturing sector are in their infancy.

It is time for the Men in Pink to answer the $64 million dollar question and to make sure that not only players get a piece of the pie, but that the workers around the world who manufacture the gear bearing their images and mascots get a fair share as well.