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Stop using the U.S. women’s soccer team as inspiration*. Just pay them more money.

Monday, July 8th, 2019

On Sunday, moments after the U.S. Women’s National Team defeated the Netherlands 2-0 to win its second consecutive World Cup title — its fourth championship overall — Fox cut to commercial, and a Nike advertisement aired.

The ad, shot in stylish black-and-white, was a take on U.S. Soccer’s “I believe that we will win” chant, which is commonly used by supporters of both the men’s and women’s national teams. Among other things, the commercial stated its belief that “a whole generation of girls and boys will go out and play and say things like, ‘I want to be like Megan Rapinoe when I grow up,’ and that they’ll be inspired to talk and win and stand up for themselves.”

It was moving, invigorating, and down-right inspirational.

It was also extremely frustrating.

Nike is a brand with a value upwards of $15 billion. And in 2019, it’s time for global brands like Nike to stop just using their power to promote these women as inspirations, and start using their power to get these women paid what they deserve.

Sure: Nike has done a lot for women’s soccer, and implying otherwise would be foolish. It sponsors several USWNT players, including Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh, Tobin Heath, and Megan Rapinoe. They are not only U.S. Soccer’s biggest partner, but they also have an ongoing deal with the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) as the league’s primary uniform, apparel, and equipment provider, as reported by The Equalizer.

And this gives Nike far more leverage in this fight, not less.

Sponsors have so much power in the sporting world: Leagues and television networks and players all need the sponsors in order to survive. So, what would happen if an organization as powerful as Nike insisted on pay equality? It’s hard to imagine the needle not moving in the right direction.

And as far as women’s soccer has come over the past couple of decades, that needle still has a long way to go. This year, USWNT players will get about $250,000 each for winning the World Cup and participating in the scheduled four-game Victory Tour in the United States. The U.S. men’s team would earn well over $1 million each for the same feat. A recent Guardian report showed there is a $730,000 per-player difference in the World Cup bonus structure between U.S. men’s and women’s teams.

Naturally, FIFA is the worst culprit of them all. The U.S. women won $4 million for winning the World Cup. Last year, the French men won $38 million when they took home the title. Overall, FIFA gives out $410 million more in prize money to men than women in the World Cup. While they have announced plans to increase the amount of prize money for future women’s World Cups, the gap will remain staggering for the foreseeable future.

That inequity makes FIFA’s patronizing “Dare to Shine” slogan down-right insufferable. These women are shining. They always have been shining. And now, they’ve used their light to expose the many ways the powers-that-be have been trying to hold them back.

Recently, some brands — clearly recognizing that it would get them public relations points — have taken the concept of inequality into their own hands. Earlier this year, after the USWNT announced it was suing U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination, Adidas announced that it was paying its women soccer players the same performance bonuses as it would pay its men’s soccer players at the World Cup. Luna Bar also stepped up and announced it was going to pay each of the 23 women named to the 2019 USNWT World Cup team $31,250, which is the exact difference between the women’s and men’s World Cup roster bonus given by U.S. Soccer. On Sunday, Budweiser became the first official beer sponsor of the NWSL. And in Visa’s new deal with U.S. Soccer, it is mandating that more than 50 percent of its money go towards the women’s team.

Is all of this coming from a place of pure charity? Of course not. Investing in women is good business. Nike certainly knows this — last month, the USWNT World Cup jersey became the highest-selling jersey in the history of Nike.com, even beating out all of the men’s jerseys.

So, yes, it’s wonderful that Nike is releasing chill-inducing commercials celebrating these phenomenal athletes, and that it believes that “we will keep fighting not just to make history, but to change it forever.” But Nike and other mega sponsors don’t just have the power to promote these ideals; they have the power to implement them. Perhaps they should just do it.

This article was originally published in ThinkProgress on July 8, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lindsay Gibbs covers sports. SportsReporter CoHost  Tennis  Mystics   

The Actual Brazil World Cup Scandal Isn’t About Thongs

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Michelle ChenThe 2014 Brazil World Cup made big headlines again this week after a controversial Adidas promotional campaign that the country’s tourist board says suggests that Brazil is a lascivious pit of sexual debauchery. As part of the elite club of mega-sporting event host nations, the “emerging” economic powerhouse of Brazil is understandably concerned about its public image and was quick to condemn the thong-shaped t-shirt logos. But officials of this rising star of Latin America seem noticeably less concerned about a touchier scandal buried beneath the pageantry: systematic human rights abuses and labor exploitation.

In recent months, several workers have died on construction sites for stadiums and other huge infrastructure projects designed to accommodate this summer’s football extravaganza, and in the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

In early February, Portuguese technician Antônio José Pita Martins died in a crane accident while working on the construction of the Arena da Amazônia football stadium in the steamy city of Manaus, the largest metropolis in the Amazon basin. The death came after two other construction worker fatalities in the same area in December: Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira, 22, plunged 115 feet to his death from the stadium rooftop. Around the same time, another worker at a nearby convention center site died of a heart attack, reportedly linked to overwork, since workers were being pressed to keep up with the scheduled construction timetable. In November, two others were killed when a crane fell at the Corinthians arena in São Paulo, which will host the World Cup’s opening match.

The fatalities, as well as other labor disputes, have led to work stoppages and threats of strikes, which have further disrupted the already-behind-schedule construction timetable and exacerbated the deadline pressure from the World Cup governing authority FIFA. The possibility of another strike was raised earlier this month after the death of Martins.

Builders union leader Cicero Custodio told Brazilian media, “We have to guarantee the workers’ rights and their safety,” and said the site would be closed the following Monday.

Global mega-sporting events are often marketed as an opportunity to foster growth and cultural exchange, and for years FIFA has issued broad standards—which are not legislation and are therefore nonbinding, but are backed by FIFA’s enormous commercial and political clout—for protecting human rights and promoting good labor practices in host countries. But activists see Brazil’s mammoth investments in stadiums and commercial infrastructure as an impediment to the emerging superpower’s long-term social progress, or even an instrument of oppression, providing a pretext for massive displacement and demolition of shantytowns, as well as the suppression of labor and civil rights.

Of course, the human rights and economic justice issues that have surfaced in Brazil are more the rule than the exception in the arena of international sport. Similar issues with overspending and displacement emerged in the preparations for the Athens and Sochi Olympic Games, as well as the South African World Cup.

In an extensive analysis published in 2012, the Brazilian advocacy network National Coalition of Local Committees for a Peoples’ World Cup and Olympics contends: “If it is true that mega events offer an opportunity for social inclusion of workers through job creation and the expansion of labor rights, this has not been the Brazilian reality.” Whether they are laborers at infrastructure projects, or informal workers who have been “suppressed” by regulations that ban them from working in World Cup commercial zones, the report states, “there is an observable pattern towards increased precariousness of labor” perpetuated by large companies and consortia as well as government agencies that coddle the corporations and fail to hold them accountable.

Workers not only have to worry about injuries on the job, but being sucked into Brazil’s vast underground labor market. Last September, the AP reported that after the construction company OAS forced the workers to pay $250 each for the privilege of getting hired for a construction project at the international airport in São Paolo, according to labor officials, “many had to sleep on thin mattresses spread out on the floor and lacked for water, refrigerators and stoves. … While the workers apparently were not held against their will, they were forced to live in conditions so miserable that the Labor Ministry defines them as ‘slave-like.'” For their trouble, they were reportedly offered $3,000 in compensation by the company before being sent home.

Much like overseas migrant laborers (as we’ve reported before, Qatar’s preparation for the 2022 World Cup has generated massive scandals around the abuse of migrant workers), Brazil’s internal labor trafficking networks use recruiters to lure poor rural workers to faraway worksites, where they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation or coercion.

Many Brazilians have been directly uprooted by the projects through forced evictions. In 2011 United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Raquel Rolnik sharply criticized “what seems to be a pattern of lack of transparency, consultation, dialogue, fair negotiation, and participation of the affected communities in processes concerning evictions undertaken or planned in connection with the World Cup and Olympics.”

But Brazilians, who are just emerging from years of post-dictatorship civil unrest and economic turmoil, have special reason to feel outraged. Brazil has developed a strong set of laws protecting labor rights and relatively broad social welfare programs, thanks to president Dilma Rousseff and her administration’s social democracy-inspired populist policies. But the hyper-commercialism of the games has inspired more resentment than national pride, and protests have exploded over the past year, led by youth, workers and the rising middle-class—all frustrated with the government’s failure to resolve massive inequality and the underfunding of social services like public transit.

In an essay in the Progressive last June, María Carrión quoted activist Rafael Lima, who represented his favela Bairro da Paz in Salvador at a community meeting about pending development plans for the World Cup:

We are not interested in waving Brazilian flags or volunteering for the World Cup… We need jobs. We need education. We need land titles. We need health care. And we need to know where this road they are planning to build is going, and who will be affected.”

Julia Neiva, a researcher with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an organization that monitors the human rights records of companies, tells Working In These Times the controversy over working conditions in Brazil’s World Cup preparations, combined with the public backlash against the games in general, reflect a deeper sentiment in civil society that while the country has managed to lift many people out of poverty over the last decade, “now we need equality.” The struggle here is ensuring that government investments are supporting workers and communities in their fight for secure jobs and social dignity—rather than pouring public money into nationalist marketing campaigns and colossal sporting events.

“Countries like Brazil that are claiming to be global leaders need to meet the human rights requirements and human rights standards,” she adds. And unlike the half-finished stadiums dotting the country, there’s no need to build Brazil’s social protections from scratch: “It’s already in our laws, not something that we need to create.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on February 28, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

South Africa’s World Cup Brims with Broken Promises

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Michelle ChenSouth Africa is the center of world this week, kicking off the first-ever World Cup Games on the African continent. But as the cameras pan across green fields and lavish festivities, labor activists are keeping their eye on the ball.

According to a report on soccer ball manufacturing from the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), more than a decade since the sporting goods industry was scandalized over rampant child labor abuses, the exploitation continues. In Pakistan, India, China and Thailand, ILRF says, “precarious labor, low wages, poor working conditions and violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights are found in the value chain of hand-stitched soccer balls.”

As degraded child workers in Asia supply the games played by other youth around the world, FIFA promotes a platform of “corporate social responsibility.” Since the late 1990s, following international condemnation of labor abuses in Pakistan, FIFA has established a Social Responsibility code, “pledged its commitment to fight child labour and has been supporting the International Labour Organization (ILO) and its International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) in its efforts towards eradicating child labour from the soccer ball industry in Pakistan.”

Additionally, FIFA now plans to develop twenty “Football for Hope Centres to promote public health, education and football in disadvantaged communities across Africa,” based on missions such as rehabilitating children with disabilities and promoting the socioeconomic advancement of women.

But the ILRF report suggests that the glossy charity projects are overshadowed by the failure of the industry to live up to the principles of the 1997 Atlanta Agreement, including both abolishing child labor and fostering rehabilitation and education in manufacturing communities.

In India, soccer balls are at the center of a deeply entrenched labor hierarchy: “Half of India’s stitchers live below the poverty line, and 90% of these households are part of the ‘untouchables’ caste…. Under such conditions, families have no choice but to make their children work.”

The ball isn’t the only symbol of oppression at play at the games; the lavish stadiums sit astride signs of racial and economic inequalities that have exploded in recent years. According to Khadija Sharife of the South Africa-based Center for Civil Soviety, “estimated expenditure for new stadiums totalled US$1,346.9 billion,” and FIFA “has already cashed in” on the spending spree spawned by aggressive overdevelopment leading up to the games. Sharife argues, “Fifa’s Cup erodes rather than aids SA’s political economy,” and the country will see little long-term benefit, as job creation and tourism have fallen short of rosy expectations.

Critics in South Africa even doubt the potential to boost national pride, as the games mainly cater to affluent foreigners and price out a huge portion of Africans. Columnist Andile Mngxitama told the UK Independent:

The World Cup is a colonial playground for the rich and for a few wannabes in the so-called South African elite… Whereas in the past we were conquered, the South African government has simply invited the colonisers this time.

The ANC government’s branding attempt in fact started showing cracks long before the kickoff. In a 2008 issue of Against the Current, Sam Ross reported:

In September 2007, construction workers building the new Green Point stadium in Cape Town demanded increased compensation for travel costs to the worksite. After two strikes in a month, 1,000 workers were locked out of the stadium, which will host the World Cup Semi-finals.

In early October 2007… FIFA Organizing Committee’s Chief Competitions Officer Dennis Mumble claimed the committee was “very happy with the progress being made and believe more than ever that we are on track to host an extremely successful 2010 World Cup.” He made no mention of labor disputes or of the fact more than one million South African workers went on strike between June and October.

Since then, strikes have popped up regularly, including a major transport union strike in May. Meanwhile, class strife has swelled with the threat of displacement. A ban on street vendors has stoked public frustration. And the longstanding Black township Joe Slovo in the Western Cape, Socialist Worker reports that some 20,000 people have resisted the authorities’ attempts to evict them:

Zodwa Nsibande is the youth league secretary of Abahlali base Mjondolo, a movement of shack dwellers set up to protect and advocate for people living in shacks.

“People are being forced from their homes and treated like animals,” she told Socialist Worker. “We live under constant threat. People are scared to move because they know they can’t come back – they will have built something on the land.”…

In South Africa the police have also been instructed to clear the streets of homeless people for the World Cup.

Isaac Lewis, who is homeless, has been arrested six times in the past month for loitering.

“Police harassment is increasing,” he says. “They want to make a good impression for the foreigners coming. We are like insects to them – like flies.”

And so South Africa joins a long tradition of mass sporting events causing mass displacement. A study by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, published in 2007 ahead of the Beijing Olympics, found that “The Olympic Games have displaced more than two million people in the last 20 years, disproportionately affecting minorities such as the homeless, the poor, Roma and African-Americans.”

It’s inevitable, perhaps, that in a sporting event that draws together people of all classes, creeds and colors, shameful paradoxes will emerge: the interplay between child workers in Pakistan and sports industry marketing agendas; the dissonance between the overbuilt stadiums and the poverty of the workers who poured their sweat into the concrete.

In such a starkly divided polity, Udesh Pillay, co-editor of Development and Dreams: The urban legacy of the 2010 Football World Cup, told the AP that the Cup “now is the emotional glue that holds the country together.”

After the last match is played, South Africans will seek another goal to bind the fractured nation together. That pursuit, symbolically tied to the fate of the entire Global South, should compel South Africa to return to the suspended vision of equity that defeated apartheid, but today remains an unfinished triumph.

This article was originally posted in Working In These Times.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Racewire.org. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com

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