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Democratic Trade Union election in Reebok Supplier Factory: Five Year Update

Peter Lee, an independent labour researcher and activist in China’s Fujian province has provided us with a rare insight into the mid to long-term effects of so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects adopted by major Western brands in an attempt to improve working conditions in their supply factories. Lee’s is not the first critique of such CSR programs, but it is possibly the first to chart their mid- to long-term effects in China. Peter Lee’s fascinating report suggests that even the apparantly most progressive CSR programs do not create lasting change.

In November 2002, Reebok instigated democratic elections for a trade union in one of its shoe suppliers – the Shun Da Sporting Good Corporation (Shun Da) in Fuzhou, China. It has been five years since that election, and in line with trade union regulations it will soon be time for another election of union officials. In March 2007, Peter Lee went to Shun Da to see how working conditions have changed in the four and half years since the Reebok election, and to see what kind of impact the new trade union has had.

The results of the investigation were extremely disappointing. Working conditions have deteriorated noticeably, and the trade union is doing more or less nothing to further workers’ interests. Interviews with workers uncovered widespread dissatisfaction and distrust towards the current union.

Another change in the past few years has been the purchase of the Reebok brand by its competitor Adidas. Lee’s study suggests that Adidas’ has not matched Reebok’s efforts to protect workers’ rights. In fact, Adidas’ new production management system has actually been disadvantageous to workers, shortening production lines and increasing the intensity of their work. Adidas is reportedly not interested in engaging with the company union.

In November it will be five years since the first democratic election, but from what he understood in his interviews, this time there is unlikely to be an open, competitive election to select the union committee. It is very likely that officials will be selected internally by the union committee itself. It seems probable that the current, unpopular union chair will be re-appointed.

Given the widespread dissatisfaction and distrust towards current union officials, he believes that there is an urgent need for this election to be open to all workers’ participation, as was the election in 2002.

He sees that Adidas can play a role in encouraging this, as Reebok did.

Here is the translated article

Reebok’s Chinese Trade Union Experiment: Five Years On
CLNT_Reebok_union_election_update.pdf [286.06KB]

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