Beauty is Only Skin Deep

Jenny Costelloe
CSR Asia
Few can have failed to notice the start of the World Cup in South Africa in recent weeks: a frenzied football gala, where nations come together to compete over “the beautiful game”.   Deliberately coinciding with the start of the competition, the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF) launched a report that suggests a less attractive, underlying role played by Asia in the World Cup and one which is more significant than many people realise, alleging labour rights abuses in the production of footballs in Pakistan, India, Thailand and China. ILRF also claims that the official World Cup match balls, which have been produced in China, have been at least in part stitched by children. (Not to mention receiving heavy criticism from the players themselves!) This article describes the purported ugly truths in football manufacturing as reported by the ILRF.
The ILRF’s report, called “Missed the Goal for Workers” reports on the widespread use of child labour in the production of footballs: in the early 1990s the International Labour Organisation estimated 20,000 children between the ages of five and fourteen were engaged in hand stitching, with 7,000 of these in Pakistan alone. Not only is child labour a direct contravention of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Global Compact, but another depressing outcome portrayed in this report is the partial success of a related pioneering agreement, known as The Atlanta Agreement (the Agreement), which was signed in 1997 and drafted specifically to address child labour in the production of footballs in Pakistan.
About thirteen years ago, when the media broke the story of children stitching footballs by hand, there was public outcry and the sporting goods sector responded by collaboratively drafting The Atlanta Agreement. Signatories included the International Labour Organisation (ILO), UNICEF and the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) – Sialkot, an area of the Punjab in Pakistan, was identified as a hotspot for this human rights abuse in the supply chain of sporting goods. Save the Children Fund UK was also involved in the drafting process, which was observed by trade unions. But what was pioneering about this Agreement was that rather than declare an immediate and universal ban on child labour, it recognised the social causes of child labour and subsequently tried to address these as a means of gradually eliminating the need for children to work in the production of sporting goods. The Agreement included a “Prevention and Monitoring Programme”, which was critical to the process of removing child labour, since many children were employed in their families’ homes, not in factories or workshops (where employees could be easily monitored). Additionally, the Agreement proposed to increase the wage rate for adult workers, to alleviate the loss of the income previously generated by children. And, to address further the social issues causing child labour, the Agreement introduced skills development projects, education centres and a myriad of initiatives to raise awareness of the issue.
However, sadly, the ILRF’s report published at the start of June would suggest that the situation has only slightly improved since the signing of the Agreement, more than a decade after the scandal first broke. Beyond Pakistan, the report also highlights violations of labour rights in the football industry in India, China and to some extent in Thailand. The main abuses cited are: child labour; low wages; and poor working conditions.
According to the report, about 70% of the footballs imported to the US in 2009 were produced in China and the majority of these will have been hand stitched by women and children. It alleges that many of these homeworkers work in excess of 14 hours a day and as much as 21 hours in peak seasons, for up to 30 consecutive days. Most of these workers are migrant workers from inland China, who are prepared to work these long hours to support families back in the rural areas. Nonetheless, the hours worked are in breach of the Chinese labour law. As in Pakistan, because of the extent of the outsourcing to homeworkers, monitoring for child labour is almost impossible and it inevitably exists. The third and final labour rights abuse in the sector in China reported by ILRF is that of workers being paid less than the minimum wage (low wages are a key driver for workers to engage their children in the process an attempt to increase productivity).
A small percentage of the footballs imported to the US in 2009 were produced in India and in Thailand. The ILRF’s report portrays conditions in India similar to those in Pakistan and China (child labour and low wages, despite attempts to eliminate the former), whilst in Thailand the situation is better because of the stitch-less production technology introduced in 2006. Despite this thermal bonding process, which obviates the need for laborious hand stitching, the football sector in Thailand reputedly pays workers less than the minimum wage and forces people to work long hours in incredibly high temperatures.
Whilst the ILRF largely focuses on reporting the labour rights abuses – as is their remit – the publication also examines some of the CSR initiatives which have been introduced to address these issues; the ILRF finds fault with all of them. Three examples of such criticism of CSR programmes are, starting with the Agreement, it was only partially successful for three reasons: the board of governors of the Agreement was mainly staffed by managers of football manufacturing companies, a clear conflict of interest; the monitoring programming demanded huge human resources to effectively audit almost 2,000 stitching centres in the region; and, the Agreement does not have a working relationship with the big brand buyers such as Nike and Puma. The report continues to criticise FIFA’s commitment to approve only balls produced in “fair conditions” because it fails to define what these fair conditions are. And finally, the ILRF’s analysis of the Fairtrade Labeling Organisation (FLO) notes the lack of transparency of the FLO’s audit details, thereby defeating the aim of empowering the workers.
The ILRF concludes its report with a call to the football industry to take “immediate action to address the issues”. The challenge however will be for the industry to find a solution that is not just a face lift, but a deeper, longer lasting treatment to keep football the beautiful game that it is.