Yes Men hoax calls on adidas to get serious about workers’ rights

Pictures from the hoax organized by The Yes Men.

On January 16, The Yes Men, working with Clean Clothes Campaign, staged a high-profile hoax, naming and shaming adidas for its failure to respect workers’ rights.

The stunt began with a surprise announcement from ‘adidas’, detailing their bold new plan to prioritize and protect workers’ rights, and their ground-breaking appointment of a Cambodian former garment worker and union leader, ‘Vay Ya Nak Phoan’ ('garment worker’ in Khmer) as adidas’ Co-CEO, alongside Bjorn Gulden, who took charge of the company on January 1.

‘Phoan’s’ first move in her ‘new role’ overseeing ‘adidas' ethical responsibilities was to sign the Pay Your Workers agreement, a real-life proposal developed by trade unions and labour rights organizations guaranteeing payment of full wages and severance owed, as well as respect for freedom of association.

‘Phoan’ also committed the brand to actively resolving current cases of rights’ violations in adidas’ supply chain, including working for the reinstatement of all eight fired union leaders at Trax Apparel in Cambodia, with 100% back pay. She pledged to respond to the demands of the Pou Chen union in Myanmar, including reinstating workers and union members who were fired for striking, significantly raising the workers’ wages, and ensuring protection for their right to freedom of association. ‘Phoan’ also committed adidas to pay over $11 million in wage theft owed to Cambodian garment workers at eight supplier factories, including $2.5 million in legally-owed severance to over 500 workers at the Hulu Garment factory.

The hoax replaced the adidas’ motto ‘Own the Game’ with one that addresses injustice in the garment industry: ‘Own the Reality.’ A Monday morning press release sent from the domain included links to an ‘image’ of Gulden and ‘Phoan’ signing the Pay Your Workers agreement, committing the company to addressing the systemic problems of wage and severance theft, and union busting.

The Yes Men hoax highlighted the hypocrisy of adidas, a brand that portrays itself as invested in women’s empowerment, while earning billions in revenue from the ongoing exploitation of women garment workers in production countries that lack adequate social security systems.

Ineke Zeldenrust, International Coordinator for Clean Clothes Campaign said, “Adidas are masters of spin, but the truth is they refuse to put their money where their mouth is. Tens of thousands of adidas garment workers are owed millions, and the sheer scale of wage theft means this issue can’t be solved on a case-by-case basis. The Yes Men have presented an alternative future where adidas’ leadership prioritizes protecting workers’ rights, one where the company takes ethical conduct seriously enough to invest in it financially. We call on Bjorn Gulden to take the urgent steps needed and sign the Pay Your Workers agreement. Words are not enough, workers need real action now, they’ve already waited too long.”

One of the 26 workers fired for striking from the Pou Chen factory in Myanmar, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I want to ask adidas if they know what happened to us and what Pou Chen is doing to us? Adidas is world famous and shouldn’t ignore what is happening to the workers who produce their shoes. Can’t they hold Pou Chen accountable for what happened to us and the jobs we lost? As a worldwide brand, don’t they have the ability to solve this issue?”

Although the action was a Yes Men hoax, and adidas has not indicated plans to sign the Pay Your Workers agreement, it carries a very real message: adidas needs to get serious about workers’ rights and sign the Pay Your Workers agreement to protect them. The agreement will guarantee garment workers the full wages owed to them since the pandemic began, and includes the establishment of a severance guarantee fund to ensure that no workers are left penniless, should they lose their jobs.

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