Child Labor Migration-Soccer ball industry shifts from Pakistan to India, bringing labor violations
Date of publication: November 1, 2008
Source: IndUS Business Journal
By Chris Nelson
WASHINGTON – More than a decade after the international sporting-goods industry pledged to take steps toward ending the use of child labor in the production of soccer balls, it appears those efforts have paid off – but not in the way that human-rights groups envisioned.
According to a new report issued jointly Oct. 6 by the Washington, D.C.-based International Labor Rights Forum and Bachpan Bachao Andolan – a New Delhi-based nongovernmental organization that campaigns against child labor – the contractors who make soccer balls for many of the world’s largest sporting-goods companies have simply moved their operations from Sialkot, a city in southern Pakistan, to northern India.
Titled “Child Labor in Football Stitching Activity Across India,” the report details extensive use of child labor and debt bondage in the production of soccer balls in Meerut, a city of about 1.1 million people located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The report follows a Sept. 16 airing of the acclaimed HBO series “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” which detailed widespread usage of child labor to make soccer balls in another northern Indian city, Jalandhar. The segment even showed video footage of children stitching together soccer-ball panels emblazoned with the words “Child Labor Free.”
“While the sporting-goods industry made a commitment to stop child labor in their supply chains when the problem was first identified in Sialkot, Pakistan, in 1997, this report shows that bonded child labor continues in the industry, and has shifted to India,” Trina Tocco, campaigns coordinator at the International Labor Rights Forum, said.
Researchers from Bachpan Bachao Andolan – which is also known as the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude – observed children in Meerut working exceptionally long shifts – as much as 10 to 15 hours -- for just a few pennies a day. In many cases, the children received no pay at all.
The children showed the researchers injuries that they had sustained from the stitching work, such as overworked, swollen hands covered in cuts and gashes, and complained of severe back pain and strenuous working conditions. “Stitching soccer balls by hand is hard work – these people use a wooden tool that holds the panels of the balls steady as they stitch them together,” Tocco said. “They place this tool between their legs and must hunch over it – that’s where they develop back problems – and they do this for hours at a time, because they must meet overly high quotas in order to get any money.
Typically, soccer-ball stitching is done in the home, where family members work together in cramped conditions for many hours at a time. Because most of the families observed live in small homes with just a few rooms, they tended to do their stitching work in the largest room of the house – usually, the living room.
Further complicating the work is that many of these families live in dwellings built of mud and lacking adequate lighting. According to the report, it is in these conditions that injuries tended to occur. “In this process of inserting needles, nimble fingers of children are usually punctured from sharp needles. Fingers have cuts from the waxed silk thread that is used to suture the material. The whole process is undertaken in unhygienic conditions, where the light is dim. Thus, there is inevitable damage to the sight, brought on by the long hours of arduous squinting.”
When interviewed about their dreams for the future, the children expressed their desires to attend school or even play with the soccer balls that they had spent hours stitching. But according to Tocco, the children almost never realize these dreams because they are forced into work in order to help their families pay off debts.
“Their parents might be in debt because they have borrowed money to pay for medicine for a sick child, or to cover funeral expenses for a family member who has died,” she said. “In many cases, mothers are stuck taking care of a sick child and their other children work all day stitching soccer balls to help make ends meet.”
The researchers identified as many as 10 sporting-goods companies that sell soccer balls made in Meerut and Jalandhar to American consumers; many of these balls are match-grade and are used in all levels of play. But whether or not any of these companies are well-known brands such as Nike or adidas remains unclear, something that Tocco attributes to the loosely organized nature of the Pakistani and Indian soccer-ball-manufacturing sectors.
“It has been very difficult for us to determine which companies are buying soccer balls made with child labor because of how the balls are made,” she said. “Basically, the children pick up their supplies from a middleman and then go home to make the balls.”
She declined to say whether human-rights groups like the International Labor Rights suspect the big sporting-goods companies of using child labor, but did acknowledge that they responded quickly and positively to the report.
“I'm not going to say that they’re not buying soccer balls made with child labor; it’s always a possibility,” Tocco said. “But I sent letters to big companies like Nike, Puma and adidas, and they all responded very quickly and said they are interested in working with us more to identify child labor problems. On other hand, I think there are a number of second-tier companies in the United States … that may be guilty of it, and those are the companies that we’re focusing on right now.”
The Sept. 16 episode of HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel includes footage of children in Jalandhar as they drop off finished soccer balls one morning to the local middleman. In the clip, the logo of Mitre, a [sporting-goods brand based in the United Kingdom], is clearly visible on the balls.
The report includes pictures of children stitching soccer balls emblazoned with logos of Beltona, a Dutch company, and Freewill Cosco, an India-based company.
Southern Pakistan and northern India have long produced much of the sporting goods used around the world, including the United States. According to a legend told throughout the region, sporting-goods manufacturing got its start in Sialkot when a British man broke his tennis racquet and needed an immediate replacement. Since one was not available, he asked a local craftsman to repair it. The man did a perfect job and an industry was born.
Sialkot's acquaintance with soccer balls began when British soldiers brought the first ball to town in the early 1900s. Since then, the city has grown to become international soccer-ball-manufacturing capital – more than three-quarters of all match-grade balls sold throughout the world are meticulously hand-stitched in the city – but in recent years, the business has begun to head south, to Meerut and Jalandhar.
Tocco attributes this trend to a child-labor crackdown in Sialkot that began a dozen years ago, following the annual Union of European Football Associations championship. Then, activists lobbied the big sporting-goods companies that supply soccer balls, boots and other gear to the clubs participating in the event to eliminate the exploitation of children by Sialkot’s soccer-ball makers. Their efforts paid off, as they eventually spurred the industry to adopt the Atlanta Agreement, which seeks to eliminate the use of child labor in the production of soccer balls.
Other initiatives followed, including one that would centralize production and thus, make it easier for the Independent Monitoring Association for Child Labor to carry out the Atlanta Agreement, but they achieved only mixed results. The International Labor Rights Forum suspects that these efforts may have actually driven corrupt contractors into northern India.
Today, Meerut is the largest supplier of sporting goods in the South Asian nation.