The other ball boys and girls

The child workers for the World Cup


The young workers employed in the sweatshop factories of sporting goods companies across the globe don’t have the opportunity to play sport; their lives are ground down by slave labour. Behind the ‘stinging play’ there is the stingy pay.

(6 June 2002) – WORLD CUP 2002 is upon us and fans of the beautiful game the world over will eat, drank and breathed football for the past few weeks. The big sporting companies also hope to do very well by World Cup 2002.

Both Nike and Adidas launched a marketing offensive on a grand scale – a multi-million pound media extravaganza. Adidas spent £38 million on the tournament, including sponsoring 10 out of the 32 teams.

Nike went hell for leather. They spent millions to get the rights to the Elvis song A Little Less Conversation, remixing it for a global TV campaign worth over £142 million. They employed the hottest and most expensive football stars. Nike’s Secret Tournament ad campaign starred the likes of French striker Henry, Portugal’s Figo, Brazilian wunderkind Ronaldo and Eric Cantona.

And they also targeted youth more than ever. Nike sponsored a three-a-side football match in London’s Millennium Dome for young up-and-coming football stars between the ages of 11 and 16.

But as the Nike PR machine also says, “before the ad, there is always a product”. Behind the glitz and the glamour, behind the slick advertising campaigns, there are many thousands of people all over the world who didn’t the time or opportunity to watch the World Cup, even though they are directly linked to Adidas and Nike.

These are the young workers employed in the sweatshop factories of sporting goods companies across the globe. They don’t have the opportunity to play sport; their lives are ground down by slave labour. Behind the ‘stinging play’ there is the stingy pay.

In April 2002, the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee published an independent investigation that exposed the working conditions in two factories in the Guandong province of mainland China that produce footballs for Adidas.

The probe revealed minimal labour protection for workers. There were wage violations, working hours of up to 14 hours a day, bad living conditions and restrictions on their personal freedom. The conditions these workers are forced to work under are illegal, but normal in the region.

The Adidas Fevernova was another highly criticized ball, blamed for being too light.

Unique to the production of quality footballs, a lot of the manufacturing process requires high labour intensity and hand sewing. Chemicals and intensive heat are used in processing genuine leather but workers are not provided with appropriate health and safety equipment, resulting in exposure to industrial and health hazards. Mechanical injuries are common in the cutting department. Medical care is often not available.

There is a new term in the Chinese language – ‘guolasi’ – which has originated from the Guandong Province and means ‘death from overwork’. Workers as young as 19 are suddenly collapsing and dying after working exceedingly long hours, day after day.

Children as young as six years old are being used to make footballs for World Cup 2002. Researchers for the Global March against Child Labour found more than 50 children working up to 14 hours a day producing Fifa-branded footballs in the Sialkot and Sangla Hill districts of Pakistan. The children told the researchers that they received 13 rupees (less than 30c) per ball and stitched an average of four to five per day. Dublin department store Arnotts sells Fifa World Cup 2002 officially branded balls for £80.

“I have been stitching footballs for as long as I can remember,” said Geeta, a young girl from Jalandhar, Punjab, who was about 12 years old. “My hands are constantly in pain. It feels like they are burning. There is nothing I can do – I have to help my older sister complete the order.”

Football stitching is home-based family work, where a middleman acts on behalf of the sporting goods manufacturer. According to industry’s own research, 20 per cent of the balls brought to the US are stitched by children under the age of 14. Most children are forced into labour to help their families earn enough money to survive.

In 1996, Fifa and international unions agreed on a Code of Labour Practice for the production of footballs carrying the Fifa authorised trademarks. In the ‘spirit of fair play’, Fifa recognised its and its licensees’ responsibility to ensure ethical production of footballs and other World Cup accessories.

The Fifa code of conduct included:

• a living wage for all workers

• no forced overtime: a maximum 48 hour week

• at least one day off in seven

• a safe and hygienic working environment

• the right to an independent trade union

• no child labour: pay for their education

After child labour became a big scandal for Fifa in 1998, it said it would ensure that it was not used in products bearing its logo. Yet in the past six years since the code of practice was agreed, Fifa has made no attempt to ensure that these codes are adhered to, even though the code contained provisions for effective monitoring.

As a ‘proud’ sponsor of the World Cup, Adidas has pledged that it will adhere to the code of conduct. Nike has had a code of conduct in place for years. Yet neither company has made any serious attempt to monitor these factories and enforce these codes of conduct.

Activists from around the world have been putting pressure on Fifa and national football teams to make this championship the first international sporting event free of child labour and in compliance with fair labour standards. It seems we will have to wait at least another four years to see if fair play can be imposed off the pitch.

Source: From An Phoblacht/Republican News, Ireland

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