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The Olympic Games must respect workers’ rights while celebrating the human spirit

4 August, 2016By Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union.

The Olympic Games is a magnificent opportunity to showcase human achievement, but far too often the elitist spirit tramples workers’ rights.

This triumphant spectacle opens in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Friday 5 August, as a celebration of the Olympic spirit: not to win, but to participate with passion and dedication.

In addition to thrilling sporting achievement, there is a glorious cultural celebration as the host nation of Brazil highlights its charm and natural beauty.

The Olympics also brings moving moments of great historical importance – such as when Jesse Owens embarrassed the Nazis by winning four gold medals and proving white racial superiority wrong during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when Ethiopian Abebe Bikila – running barefoot - won gold in the Marathon in Rome in 1960, or the Black Power salute of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in Mexico City in 1968 that drew the world’s attention to the civil rights movement in the US.

There will be moments like this at the Games that open in Rio on Friday. I am looking forward to watching the courage shown by the refugee team. This includes an 18 year-old Syrian woman, swimmer Yusra Mardini, who helped save 20 refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean when they fled from Turkey to Greece.

But the Olympics is still an elitist event: while we celebrate the achievements of the world’s best athletes, the homes of the poor have been bulldozed to build the Olympic Park.

In an attempt to address these issues, the Rio 2016 organizing committee developed a sustainable supply chain guide. This is an admirable and praiseworthy document that attempts to ensure that the Games are sustainable for people and planet, and leave a positive legacy. It includes commitments to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and a commitment to providing formal work.

The agreement covers not just suppliers, but sponsors, too. So it is disappointing that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) took no action against Nissan for failing to adhere to the guidelines.

Nissan is an official Olympic sponsor, providing 4,200 vehicles for the Games, and launching the Kicks as the official car. They have capitalized on the Olympic spirit, as president of Nissan Brazil Francois Dossa says:

“We can expect strength, boldness and a daring disposition from Nissan – as captured in our motto "QuemSeAtreve" or "Who Dares?”

But Nissan doesn’t dare to face its own workforce fairly. The company has failed to honour its commitment to freedom of association with its aggressive anti-union campaign in Canton, Mississippi. IndustriALL protested at the headquarters of the IOC in February, and our affiliates have taken action around the world.

Most recently, our Brazilian affiliates took dramatic action against Nissan during the torch relay, using the opportunity to highlight Nissan’s union busting and reaching 26 million people in a social media campaign that hijacked the company’s  #QuemSeAtreve hashtag.

Similarly, the Games provide an opportunity to clean up the supply chains of sportswear manufacturers, but this has been missed.

When IndustriALL meets for its second world congress in Rio in October this year, we will take up these issues.

The Games come to Rio at a difficult time for the country. There is political turmoil due to an attempted coup by the Right, and the cost of the Olympics has added to the economic problems in the country. There are concerns about water safety and the Zika virus, and police and firefighters are protesting at delays to salary payments.

Behind the legendary beauty of Rio’s seafront at Ipanema and Copacabana lie the favelas. Behind the shining corporate spectacle of the Olympic Games lies a trail of corruption, murky supply chains and rights abuses.

Enjoy the show. But while you watch the athletes, remember also the garment workers who sewed the clothes they are wearing, the construction workers who built the arenas, the poor of the city who lost their homes, and the workers in the supply chains who are fighting against union busting.

The Olympics should be a celebration of what we can achieve collectively, as human beings, and an opportunity for Brazil to showcase itself. Let’s use this opportunity to also celebrate the workers who made it happen.