June 14, 2010

The little football stitchers

The little football stitchers
By Chris Arsenault

As football fans celebrate the World Cup, thousands of children, some no more than six years old, toil in difficult conditions for low wages sewing footballs, a new report says.

Most of the so-called little hands stitching footballs are in Pakistan, India, China and Thailand, the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF), a Washington D.C. based advocacy group, said.

The World Cup organiser, Fifa, has a policy banning child labour at factories which produce its official balls.

However, an investigation by the ILRF, which focused on Fifa's supply chain in Pakistan, found that the policy against child labour was little more than paper.

"The existence of child labour and other labour abusive practices were found to varying degrees in all four Fifa licensed supply chains" that the group studied in Pakistan, the ILRF said in a June 7 report.

The ILRF criticised Fifa's social responsibility programmes because they do not address "low wages, unpaid overtime and occupational safety hazards".

On its website, Fifa said that it "is fully aware of fair employment issues and pays special attention to them, and particularly to that of child labour”.

“Child labour is a complex socio-political phenomenon and as such, it is extremely difficult to combat,” Fifa said.

In China, the largest exporter of footballs to the US, most production takes place in factories. Some workers have complained of unsafe conditions and forced overtime.

In Pakistan and India, most footballs are stitched by casual workers who work in cottage industries, rather than official factories.

The ILRF report interviewed 218 workers in Sialkot, the hub of Pakistan's football industry, and found that 70 per cent worked on a casual basis.

Casual employment makes it difficult for groups like Fifa to monitor labour conditions. It also means workers are ineligible for benefits, health-care and, in some cases, government mandated labour law.

More than half of the workers in Sialkot said they earned less than the official minimum wage of $73.8 per month.

Bahaar, a 30 year old worker, said he is paid a piece rate for each ball he stitches, and earns $44.28 per month, 40 per cent less than the national minimum wage, while his basic monthly expenses are $162.
Child laborers often cannot play with the footballs the sew [AFP]

A worker like Bahaar will earn about 59 cents for sewing a ball that sells for $50 in the US or Europe, so profit margins are high for contract bosses, factory owners and the multinational companies who purchase the balls.

The CEO of Nike, the US based sportswear giant, earned $3,950,000 in 2009, while an Indian football sewer earned about $600.

Female workers in Pakistan say gender discrimination is prevalent, as their wages are generally lower than their male counterparts. Some women complain of losing their contracts or jobs after becoming pregnant.

In a positive note, most workers who were interviewed in Pakistan said they consider their workplaces safe.

Consumers in the US imported more than $11m worth of soccer balls from Pakistan in 2009.

Malika, another Pakistani worker interviewed by the ILRF, said she began working in a soccer ball factory at age five.

When the factory tried to strip her monthly salary in favour of contract employment, Malika and other women protested. The factory fired her. She fought her employer in labour court, and won back-pay, but was not rehired and lost medical benefits.

She became sick and spent her entire life savings on treatment at a private hospital and is now heavily in debt after taking a loan to pay for her daughter's school fees.

Nike, who is sponsoring ten World Cup football teams, says it is trying to clean up abusive practices among its suppliers.

The company "has been working to change how factories in Pakistan pay for soccer balls to shift the industry from a piece-goods system to a wage-based system," a company spokesman said.

Adidas, a major World Cup sponsor, said it "believes that factory wages should always meet basic needs and provide for reasonable savings and expenditure".

While individual workers like Malika do not have a choice but to start working as children, the policy of keeping children stitching soccer balls, rather than going to school, does not make long-term economic sense.

And while some of the worst child labour abuses have been curtailed since public uproar focused on the issue in the 1990s, many workers, children and adults, still have no hope of saving for an education and cannot afford basic necessities.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has estimated that the global cost of eliminating child labour is outweighed by the economic benefits.

The initial upfront cost for eliminating child labour "is far less than the $10 trillion that were allocated to save banks in the US and UK alone during the current economic crisis", the ILO reports.

Globally, child labour has decreased by an estimated three per cent in the last four years, the ILO estimates.

Still, 215 million children worldwide have to work to survive, with 115 million exposed to hazardous work, the ILO has said.

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