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Milanti's face is the picture of bewilderment. A section of the website belonging to Decathlon, the discount sporting goods retailer, has just been translated for her – a part where the company pledges fair business practices despite its low prices. "In Decathlon, responsibility is one of our core values," it reads. "Therefore, in the factories of our suppliers or subcontractors, we are committed to observe and ensure the application of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights developed by the United Nations under the "Protect, Respect and Remedy" framework, within our Social Charter."

While the website notes that the "Social Charter" pertains to such things as "child labor, working hours, discrimination, etc.," it provides no additional details. Milanti, in any case, has just finished a 12-hour shift at one of the 12 Decathlon suppliers in Sri Lanka, and she has no claim to vacation time or sick pay. "I thought people in Europe had it better," she says, bewildered.

Milanti's name has been changed to protect her identity and many details about her life and those of her coworkers have gone unmentioned in this story. Otherwise, there is a risk that the seamstresses could be punished for tarnishing the image of a company that seeks to present itself as a socially responsible, environmentally sustainable company that is expanding worldwide.

That expansion can easily be seen in Germany, where hardly a week goes by without another branch of the French chain opening up somewhere in the country. The company, based in the northern French town of Villeneuve-d'Ascq outside of Lille, made an initial, unsuccessful attempt to penetrate the German market in the 1980s, but ran up against stiff competition from outdoor specialist stores. This time around, though, customers have become well-versed is seeking out the best deal on the Internet and are now welcoming the discounter with open arms.

By the end of this year, Decathlon will have 46 stores in Germany and will soon become market leader. And it continues to scour the country for large retail spaces (30,000 square meters / 320,000 square feet) located on main arterials that can be reached by at least 250,000 people within 20 minutes or less. Those who have suboptimal real estate for rent are ecstatic about Decathlon's expansion. City center retailers, meanwhile, are less excited, as are mayors worried about maintaining the vitality of their municipality's pedestrian zones. Because the market for sporting goods hasn't grown in Germany since 2000, every article Decathlon sells at a discount price is an article that another store doesn't sell.

And as has now become apparent, Decathlon isn't quite as dedicated to sportsmanship as it would have its customers believe.

Washing at the Well

As she does every day, Milanti walked the 1.5 kilometers to work after spending the night with her husband and children in the same bed. The family lives in a so-called boarding house, huge numbers of which have sprung up outside the multiple free trade zones in Sri Lanka, providing shelter to the army of workers. They tend to be little more than barracks with tiny rooms in which residents sleep and cook. The area around Katunayake, near the Colombo airport, or near Wathupitiwela, located not far away, is full of such boarding houses.

Many of the beds are shared. When one woman heads of for a nightshift, another who has just arrived home lies down to get some sleep. The boarding houses don't have bathing facilities, with Milanti having washed herself with water from an outside well and a tiny piece of soap. Shower gel is much too expensive for the family.

Even in good months, Milanti's wages from the Decathlon supplier hardly amount to more than 150 euros. A quarter of that total goes to rent and electricity, with an additional quarter going to childcare, with school ending in early afternoon.

Sri Lankan textile exports to the European Union amount to $1.9 billion per year, making Europe the country's most important export market. And it may soon jump up by $400 to $500 million, according to a recent statement by Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen. Following a seven-year-lull, Brussels in May once again granted the country reduced export duties under its Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) program offered to developing countries.