Globalization in Pakistan: The Football Stitchers of Sialkot

By in Sialkot, Pakistan

The city of Sialkot in Pakistan produces as many as 60 million hand-stitched footballs in a World Cup year. The firms here are running out of new workers since child labor was abolished. Western buyers may have a clear conscience, but the children of Sialkot now toil in the local brickworks instead.

Photo Gallery: The Football Stitchers of Sialkot Photos
Hasnain Kazim

The village is surrounded by lush green fields. A few red chimneys from brick factories, their tips blackened with soot, jut into the sky. Flat, crumbling buildings are dotted around with windows like arrow slots. They appear to be barns or grain stores.

In one of these houses in Sambrial, a few kilometers outside Sialkot on Pakistan's border with India, Shaukat is sitting on a short-legged chair next to 20 other men. He has taken off his sandals and put them next to his chair. In March, it's warm enough to work barefoot. Shaukat is a strong, 20-year-old man. He has been working for this independent stitching factory, Danayal, for eight years. Danayal produces handmade footballs for professional leagues.

At one end of the room there's an old television set showing a football match, but the men aren't paying any attention to it. They're sewing and talking to each other. They find cricket far more interesting. Most of them have never played football. But Shaukat is glad that millions of people around the world like football -- maybe not in Pakistan and not really in the entire region of South Asia, but in the rest of the world. That global love of the beautiful game has given him an income for years.

At the entrance to the factory there's a notice board showing the current rates of pay. Depending on the model, his employer pays between 55 and 63 Pakistan rupees per ball ($0.65 to $0.75, €0.48 to €0.55). "On a good day I manage six balls," says Shaukat. That's eight hours work. "That's not a lot of money," he says as he pushes a needle through the thick synthetic leather and stitches together two patches. His boss is standing close by so he quickly adds: "But it's not little either." He gets paid every Saturday and has to feed a family of six with his wages.

Beneficiaries of Globalization

On average the people of Sialkot earn €1,000 euros ($1,370) a year, twice the national average, thanks to the sports goods industry. Manufacturers of surgical instruments, leather goods and musical instruments also contribute to the city's prosperity. All balls and surgical knives manufactured here are exported. Politicians and executives scrutinized foreign markets and adopted the standards of their Western partners. Some 500,000 people live here -- 3 million if you include the commuter belt -- and most of them are proud of themselves and their city. The streets are better and the cars newer than in other regions of Pakistan. Sialkot has profited from globalization.

There's a hill of white footballs piled up in the room next door. The material -- per ball, 20 hexagonal patches and 12 pentagons of synthetical leather plus the bladder and thread -- is supplied by the company Forward Sports. Every evening a truck comes to collect the finished balls. At present, Forward Sports is the biggest manufacturer of handmade footballs in Sialkot. It outsources to more than 100 stitching centers like Danayal. It sells the balls to German sports company Adidas for between €5 and €10 per ball, no one here wants to state the exact price. Adidas has supply contracts with other companies in Sialkot in addition to Forward Sports.

It's a long route from the stitching rooms of Sialkot to the professional football pitches of Europe and America. First you get the sub-subcontractors -- the stitching centers, the backroom workshops, the one-man businesses. Add to that the subcontractors, the transport firms, the customs offices, the sports equipment giants, the advertising industry, the sports good retailers and the department stores. The chain converts a 63-rupee ball into a product costing more than €100. Everyone wants a cut. And someone has to come up with the millions of euros for the football stars, the expensive advertising icons of the sports brands.

Up to 60 Million Footballs a Year

Demand for footballs is enormous, especially in years when there's a World Cup. Since the mid-1980s, Sialkot has had its own customs office, which means the manufacturers don't have to transport their goods to the port of Karachi. They call the freight center their "dry port." Last year the city opened a modern airport to allow the gentlemen from Adidas, Nike, Puma and Co to fly straight to Sialkot and to receive particularly urgently needed supplies per air freight.

Recently, however, hardly any Western executives have dared to travel to Pakistan, even though there haven't been any terrorist attacks in Sialkot. The sports giants are so afraid of terrorism that they haven't even built up a distribution network in the country, even though most of their products are manufactured here. Pakistani business people have trouble getting visas for the United States or for Europe. But business is still going well, they say.

The factories of Sialkot supply 40 million footballs a year, and that number rises to 60 million in European Championship or World Cup years. That's an estimated 70 percent of the global production of hand-sewed footballs. According to legend, the success story of Sialkot as world capital of football production started with a man who repaired a leather ball for British colonial military officers about a century ago, and then began making his own balls. He was called Syed Sahib, and the city has named a street after him.

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