We know the story. Impoverished garment workers caught in a struggle for fair pay and conditions against a corrupt and greedy management, bankrolled by a distant multinational who only cares that the contracts go out on time and budget. I've told it on the blog so very many times.
The thing with any perceived truth is that it's never the whole story. A recent strike by factory workers in China twisted the tale in a very surprising way.
Employees at Taiwanese shoe manufacturer Yue Yuen downed tools after finding out that the company had been underpaying its social security contributions. Thousands walked out in a strike that's being called one of the biggest in the history of industrial action. But it was supervisors who first noticed the issue, and confronted senior plant officials over the problem. Even more unusually, some of the big-name Western brands who had a lot to lose from the Yue Yuen walkout sided vocally with the workers. Both Nike and Adidas have made it clear that they would not move production from the plant, choosing instead to support the strikers.
Even more astonishingly, Adidas has offered support and entered into negotiations with the Chinese government to secure the release of two of the leading figures in the strike following their arrest. In a statement to The Guardian, Adidas said:
"With respect to the arrest of two workers' representatives, Mr Zhang and Mr Lin, we were engaged with several labour rights groups in Southern China, to try to determine where they were being detained and offered our support to secure their release. We also wrote to the Dongguan mayoral office, calling for his immediate release."Despite the heavy financial hit to Yue Yuen, estimated at $27 million, it's fascinating to see the big names siding with workers in industrial disputes. Let's not kid ourselves that this is the dawn of a new caring sharing corporate structure. But the multinationals are starting to see, I think, that it's in their own best interests to keep skilled garment workers happy and healthy. Strikes are bad for business. It makes sense to stop them happening, and if that means putting pressure on the factory owners to pay and treat their workers fairly, then so be it. It's heartening to see corporate pressure flexing in the right direction for a change.