By Hasnain Kazim in Sialkot, Pakistan
The Pakistani suppliers have had a good reputation among global sports firms ever since child labor was officially banned here. Children as young as 10 years old used to stitch footballs until there was an international outcry about it. The sports companies, accustomed to nurturing their image with huge sums of money, got worried about their reputation. So they sided with human rights campaigners and exerted pressure. In 1997, Pakistani suppliers and representatives of Unicef and the International Labor Organization signed the Atlanta Agreement in which the industry agreed to stop the use of child labor.
Thousands of children lost their jobs overnight. To make it easier for the sports groups to control the ban, the big domestic manufacturers prohibited people from working at home and built stitching centers instead. Pakistan now has the Independent Monitoring Association for Child Labor (IMAC), which regularly visits factories and checks the workers' papers. In order to preclude bribery, a computer determines at random the time and location of factory inspections. It's odd that IMAC is financed by local manufacturers. But several small firms don't take part in the system. "It could well be that they are still employing children," says one IMAC controller.
"Child labor is a sensitive issue," says Aziz-ur Rehman, the head of Adidas in Pakistan. He says Adidas has developed its own monitoring system. In addition, its subcontractor Forward Sports sends people into the stitching factories to make sure there are no children there.
The case of Saga Sports is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a child is caught stitching footballs these days. Nike cancelled its contract with the company in 2006 because of it and Saga, once one of the city's biggest employers, is virtually bankrupt today. The managers of Forward Sports, Comet Sports, Capital Sports and the smaller manufacturers in the city paid close attention to the fate of their competitor.
Children Now Work in Brickworks Instead
Parents now send their children to the brickworks and into metalworking companies where no one is worried about corporate image. The families need the money to survive. The local sports companies are aware of what's happened but they want to fulfil the wishes of their Western customers. After all, the people who spend a lot of money on footballs want to do so with a clear conscience. The customer in a sports retail outlet doesn't realize that young girls are now hauling bricks right next door to Danayal, the stitching factory.
"Ten or 12-year-olds were well off here," says one manager who asked not to be named. "They learned a trade here that secured them an income for life. Now we're having trouble finding new stitchers."
Muhammad Ishaq Butt is convinced that Sialkot will cope with the labor shortage. He's sitting in his wood-panelled office in the city center wearing a blue blazer with gold buttons, a closely cropped grey beard and horn-rimmed spectacles. Butt, president of the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce, looks like a Hanseatic entrepreneur. "We're currently building a factory where balls will be glued by machine," he says. It's a joint venture project between the city and private investors. In Thailand and China balls have for a long time been exclusively produced by machine -- to such a high standard that the 2006 World Cup in Germany for the first time didn't use a football made in Pakistan, but in Thailand. The Adidas model "Jabulani" for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa is manufactured in China.
Ball From Pakistan in Champions League Final
A lot is going to change for the stitchers of Sialkot in future. "That's how society works," says Butt. "The people will learn to operate machines." However, demand for hand-stitched balls remains very high and the quality is still better than balls glued or stitched by machines, he adds.
In the big companies of Sialkot, men in white coats are working to make the handmade balls even better. They're using computers to measure whether the product is perfectly round. Machines check how much water a ball absorbs in the rain, how resilient the material is and whether the surface is too slippery. The work is paying off, the researchers say. A ball made in Sialkot will be used in the Champions League final in Madrid on May 22.
So no one in Sialkot should be worried, says Butt.
Besides, firms here have learned how to offset market share lost to the competition in the Far East, he adds. "We're increasingly making other products here." Sports clothing and bags, for example. And he proudly declares that his city has made it to the top in other industry: The city now produces more gloves than any other region in the world.
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