Adidas and Human Rights Defenders: no longer run-of-the-mill?

December 8, 2016

In 2012 – in the run up to the London Olympics – the Playfair 2012 Campaign (supported by War on Want and others) highlighted the appalling experiences of workers making Adidas official Olympic and Team GB goods in China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. “Around the world 775,000 workers, mainly women, in 1,200 factories across 65 countries make Adidas products. Almost all of the jobs are outsourced to factories in poorer countries, yet through Adidas’ buying practices the company has enormous influence over their working conditions, and ultimately their lives. In the run up the London 2012 Olympics research has exposed the harsh reality of life for these workers.” The campaign demanded Adidas to end worker exploitation.

In a report of 11 March 2015 on Labor Rights Abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry Human Rights Watch noted that brands can do more and said “For example, Adidas wrote to Human Rights Watch that it first started privately disclosing its supplier list to academics and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in 2001 and moved to a public disclosure system in 2007.”

In an article in Open Democracy of 17 June 2015  Mauricio Lazala and Joe Bardwell under the title: “What human rights?” Why some companies speak out while others don’t.state that:More recently, civil society has called on FIFA sponsors to respond to human rights concerns at construction sites for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. So far, Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa have issued statements supporting workers’ rights in the country

In an article published on 16 November 2015, ISHR Director Phil Lynch explored the role, responsibility and interest of business when it comes to supporting human rights defenders and protecting civil society space. He mentions Adidas in the following context: The fourth and final category of actions, perhaps the most important but also the least common, involves business actively advocating and seeking remedy for human rights defenders and against laws and policies which restrict them. Such action could be private, as I understand to be the predominant approach of Adidas. It could also be public, such as the open letters and press statements issued by Tiffany & Co and others for the release of Angolan defender and journalist Rafael Marques

On 31 December 2015, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre listed in its “KnowTheChain” (a ranking of 20 apparel and footwear companies on efforts to address forced labour in the supply chain) Germany-based Adidas as number one out of 20.

On 21 June 2016 Adidas published its policy on HRDs: “The Adidas Group and Human Rights Defenders“. As there is such a dearth of corporate policies specifically on human rights defenders, here follows the key part in quote:

The threats faced by human rights defenders come in many forms – physical, psychological, economic, and social – and involve the interaction of many factors (poor governance, the absence of the rule of law, intolerance, tensions over development issues, etc.) and can be triggered by different actors, both private and State.

In his report to the General Assembly in 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders recommended that both States and businesses should play an active role in supporting and promoting the role of HRDs working in their sectors. This should include, for example, speaking out when human right defenders are targeted for their corporate accountability work. Businesses must also cease and abstain from supporting any actions, directly or indirectly, which impinge upon defenders’ rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The adidas Group has a longstanding policy of non-interference with the activities of human rights defenders, including those who actively campaign on issues that may be linked to our business operations. We expect our business partners to follow the same policy; they should not inhibit the lawful actions of a human rights defender or restrict their freedom of expression, freedom of association, or right to peaceful assembly.

We value the input and views of all stakeholders and we are willing, and open, to engage on any issue, be this related to our own operations or our supply chain. Often, our engagement with human rights defenders is constructive, especially where we identify areas of shared concern. For example, with respect to transparency and fair play in sports, or environmental sustainability, or the protection of worker rights in our global supply chain. In these instances, we may actively support the work of the HRD and derive shared value from our joint endeavours in, say, improving working conditions, safety, or the environment.

We will also petition governments, alone or in concert with other actors, where we feel the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders with whom we are engaged have been impinged by the activities of the State, or its agents.5 For example in cases where there are credible reports of a human rights defender being threatened, intimidated or detained by the police or government officials. We will also take direct action where there is clear evidence that a business partner has breached the rights of HRDs. In each case our efforts and choice of action will be informed by the situation as it presents itself, and the extent of leverage we can bring to bear to change the wrongful behaviour identified.(See commentary to Principle 19 of the UN Guiding Principles for Business & Human Rights, which states that “Leverage is considered to exist where the enterprise has the ability to effect change in the wrongful practices of an entity that causes a harm.”)

If any HRD believes that the adidas Group or its business partners have directly impacted on their human rights they can use our Third Party Complaint Mechanism to lodge a formal complaint.


Here are recent examples of the actions the ADIDAS group has taken to address the treatment of human rights defenders, whose activities were linked to issues in our global supply chain.

Vietnam, 2016: This case involved the detention of two labour rights advocates who met with workers who faced retrenched following a fire that destroyed the main production building at Yupoong Vietnam, a cap manufacturer. We learned of the detention and subsequent release of the two individuals from Viet Labor, an overseas labour rights group. We committed to Viet Labor that we would take action, in line with our policy of protecting individuals and advocates against any infringement of their rights (freedom of association, freedom of expression, etc.) during active disputes and investigations. We wrote directly to the Chairman of Dong Nai People Committee and called on the provincial government and the local police to show maximum restraint in dealing with protests, and not to interfere where individuals are acting peacefully and within the law.

Cambodia, 2015: We were approached by a US labour rights organisation, Workers Rights Consortium, in 2015, regarding our position over the legal action taken by the Cambodia Garment Manufacturers Association (GMAC) against six independent trade union leaders in Cambodia, alleging their involvement in the destruction of property during the 2014 nationwide protests. We explained that we had been very clear in our communications to GMAC and to our suppliers, and that we believed the criminal charges are without merit and that the case should be withdrawn. During 2014 we met with the GMAC Secretariat and individual GMAC Board Members on more than one occasion to deliver that message. We repeated that message in subsequent face-to-face meetings in 2015.

China, 2014: This case involved the detention of two labour advocates, who had supported striking workers at the Yue Yuen industrial complex in Dongguan in the People’s Republic ofChina. We engaged on a daily basis with civil society groups in Southern China, as we tracked the local government’s handling of what was the PRC’s largest ever strike, involving some 40,000 workers. Two advocates from Shenzhen Chunfeng Labour Disputes Services Centre, who had been advising the workers, were arrested and detained by the police. On the day the strike ended one of the advocates was released, the other however remained in detention. The grounds for his arrest were not disclosed by the authorities, although it was rumoured that he was being held for incitement and “causing trouble”. We petitioned the local mayor, calling for the advocate to be released. Our action was timed with an online campaign run by civil society. Three weeks later the individual was set free, without charge.


One Response to “Adidas and Human Rights Defenders: no longer run-of-the-mill?”

  1. […] Mauricio Lazala Deputy Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre [see also:…] […]

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