The buildings huddle on the city's outskirts, at the end of the road where the stubbled fields begin. Water is in short supply. The grass is tough and lean. As are the goats, the sheep, the buffalo - and the people. A picture of monotony.
The houses are rudimentary; some made of dung, the better ones of brick. They consist of two rooms, sometimes three. The floors are bare concrete. Wooden shelves on the walls hold stacks of old newspapers, a few odd cups and plates.
Sehzadi Akhtar has lived in Sialkot for years, ever since she was married off to a man who is now no longer able to support his family. He broke his arm and the bone didn't set properly. Akhtar's husband remained crippled, so she now shoulders a twin burden: she looks after the household and pays for the family's upkeep. Like her neighbors, she sits in the yard for seven or eight hours a day, stitching balls. Soccer balls.
Their handiwork sells under the brand name "Derbystar" - a quality product; it takes strength to drive the needle through the thick plastic. A ball like this can cost 99 in European stores. It takes Akhtar three hours and 750 stitches to piece together the 32 separate panels with waxed thread, to produce a ball she will deliver to a downtown manufacturer. Her reward will be 40 rupees, some 60 cents. Akhtar manages three balls a day, then her housework duties call. She is gaunt, tired and deeply devout. And, some would say, one of the city's losers - a casualty of a well intentioned but poorly conceived attempt to make the world a better place.
This experiment was launched in northeastern Pakistan. In Sialkot, a sprawl of a city growing unchecked and out of control. New housing, new huts, mushroom daily on its fringes. In the center people choke in the traffic: a jungle of donkey carts, buses belching black exhaust fumes, compact cars and motor scooters that transport entire families.
The newcomers hail from the western provinces bordering on Afghanistan - and the war. And from the southern provinces too, a region where the realities of life are even harsher. They dream of finding work, a future in Sialkot. If not here - in Pakistan's industrial heartland, the world's football production capital - where else can they hope to eke out a living?
People flock to this city from far and wide; 60 percent of the world's footballs are made here, by more than 200 producers. They sport names like "Laser," "Estrella International," "Ali Trading Company" and "Fox & Associates." Some are one-room setups equipped with a telephone and a few files. Others are headquartered in towers of glittering glass and concrete that would slot smoothly into European cityscapes. As a rule these companies ship their output overseas. They are integrated in the global economy, links in the international value chain. The owners are subcontractors for Nike, Adidas and other corporations marketing "lifestyle" products. Their earnings have transformed the region into Pakistan's El Dorado. People here make about $1,000 a year, nearly twice the national average.
The balls are all made by hand - in 2,000 workshops, sheds and backyards where 40,000 men and women stitch away, each subcontracting to a Pakistani company, each an entrepreneur in his or her own right. Workers are paid by the ball. Families with no fields to cultivate and no buffalo to milk need at least two full-time stitchers to put three square meals a day on the table. These people are members of the global proletariat. Their poverty makes products affordable for the rich. And enables the brands to run exorbitantly expensive image campaigns.
This is the way things are today. And the way things were in 1996, when England hosted the European Championships: an opportune moment to change the world. The initiative was born in the United States. Zakauddin Khawaja still recalls the moment vividly: it all began with a phone call from his agent in America. Incensed, the caller described what he viewed as a scandal, an assault by the U.S. media on the economy of Sialkot, on Pakistan's good name. Immediate action was called for, he said.
Back then, Khawaja was CEO of Capital Sports. He employed some 2,000 stitchers: men, women - and children. He neither disputes this fact nor apologizes for it; after all, his company was scarcely the only offender. At the time, at least a quarter of his workforce was underage.
Putting a stop to child labor
According to Khawaja's agent, human rights groups were instrumentalizing the Pakistani premier's visit to the U.S. Their mission: to alert the football world that its top stars were kicking balls tainted with the sweat of child labor.
Television newscasts paraded representatives from Nike and the other feel-good brands feigning surprise. Their spokespeople claimed there had been no reports of child labor, but they would look into the allegations. Shortly afterwards the brands presented an ultimatum to their Asian business partners. Either the children vanished from the factories or the orders would vanish from their books. The human rights activists rejoiced. Khawaja did not.
"We had no alternative," Khawaja says today. He sits in his office chair, a 72-year old man bowed by age and sapped by cancer. He no longer needs to mince his words or sugarcoat a bitter truth. "We didn't ban child labor out of the goodness of our hearts. We did it because it would have put us out of business."
Before the ultimatum ran out, Sialkot's manufacturers, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) had signed an agreement. The corporations wanted no direct part in the negotiations. The whole affair was too ugly.
The Atlanta Agreement, as it was known, was heralded as a breakthrough by human rights organizations. It marked the first time they had wrested a binding concession from an entire industry - to ban child labor from its factories. The manufacturers had 18 months to satisfy the conditions laid down in the eight-page covenant, a document that spelled unconditional surrender. When Khawaja talks about it today, he can still barely control his anger.
"Our only concern was to satisfy our customers," he says. The actual work was handled by intermediaries, who supplied the personnel, rented the workshops and were responsible for delivering on time, he adds.
The "meddling" by self-appointed human rights advocates from abroad is uncalled for, he feels. Yet again these latterday colonial overlords were imposing their own values and norms on other countries. Khawaja doesn't say this in so many words, but recrimination reverberates between the lines. The foreigners have forced him to think about the day laborers and acknowledge their plight. He would rather not know. What it all boils down to, he mutters in disgust, is just another of these "save the children"-style crusades.
His tone turns dismissive and he terminates the interview, saying he is tired, the chemotherapy has drained him. Leaning heavily on his cane, he heads through the corridors of the Chamber of Commerce to his office. The people he passes in the hall greet him respectfully, with a bow. They see him as a visionary, the man who saved the industry from collapse.