As the Football World Cup 2002 kicks off on May 31, football fans the world over head for South Korea and Japan, while the rest are glued to their TV sets in rooms adorned with posters of their favorite players. Even as high profile stars of the game kick-start the matches in Seoul, South Korea, unsung heroes in small towns of India and Pakistan are bent over their tedious work, ensuring that the show can go on. They are the child laborers in the football stitching industry.
As the first World Cup of the new millennium gets underway under a tremendous media blitz, the organizers, FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations), blatantly violate their own guidelines regarding child labor. A code of conduct outlined in 1998 included in every contract between FIFA and sporting good companies stated that the manufacturers would not use child labor at any stage of the production process, including sub-contracting.
But it is an open secret that in Pakistan and India, the main producers of footballs in the world, child labor is rampant in its worst form. A child laborer gets hardly Rs 5 (1US$=Rs49) for stitching one football. The contractors, however, deny the low wage. Omprakash, a middleman who gives out leather pieces in this village claims that he pays Rs 10 for a Size 1 Football (the smallest size) and Rs 15 for Size 2. But the 50 families of Dabthua village, who have on average two children employed in the football stitching industry contest this claim. Says Mohan of Dabthua village near Meerut in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, "I am 20 now and started stitching footballs when I was six years old. Over these 14 years my wages have increased by only Re 1."
The situation is no better in Jalandhar and Batala, the main production centers in the relatively prosperous state of Punjab. According to a report published in June 2000 by the India Committee of Netherlands and the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, there are at least 10,000 child laborers in the football industry in Punjab.
To highlight this fact and hold the FIFA accountable for this violation of its code of conduct, a survey was conducted Delhi-based Tata Consultancy Services from February to April 2002 in Batala and Jalandhar in Punjab. The team talked to 450 families and 20 Stitching Units in Jalandhar.
Approximately 50 per cent of the families interviewed are dependent on football stitching. Children in the football stitching industry, who are between 5 and 14 years old, work very hard. With no fixed hours, they usually work about eight hours a day. Some, who go to school, work for about fours hours daily. A child worker can produce between two to four footballs per day.
Leisure for these children is unknown, and health problems abound. A study conducted in 1999 by the National Labor Institute (NLI) reveals that about 45 per cent of the children working in the
football stitching industry in Punjab reported pain in the finger joints, knee joints, headache and backache due to sitting on one position for extended periods of time. In addition, many children suffer from poor eyesight, cuts and perforations on their hands and twisted fingers. In fact, about 10 per cent of the families interviewed by the NLI reported that continued morbidity due to occupational health hazards had forced them to move out of football stitching as their primary source of income.
To make matters worse, there is no public health care system and a complete absence of medical reimbursement from the contractors and exporters. The situation is compounded by the fact that the workers are only in touch with the contractor, who is the middleman. They have little idea about who owns the final product, or the destination of the footballs that they stitch. Moreover, since there is no written agreement, the child laborers do not get any benefits laid down in the law.
The scenario for the adult workers, particularly women, is not much better. For instance in Punjab in the peak season, an adult worker earns on average of Rs 100 per day at the stitching centre, Rs 56 to 80 at the registered stitching units and Rs 44 at the unregistered home-based units. These rates come down by almost 60 per cent in the off season. Significantly, women workers are given only one third of the rate paid to men.
While the current minimum daily wage fixed by the Punjab Government is Rs.62 for un-skilled agricultural labor, there is no official minimum wage laid down for stitching of footballs although one third of the football stitching units in Punjab are registered. While the government turns a blind eye to the blatant violation of law and ethical norms, the football industry continues to prosper at the cost of child labor. The FIFA earns an estimated $1.1 billion from licensing World Cup goods, and it is a moot question how much of this will be spent on monitoring the Jalandhar Project to end child labor in football stitching.
If the Pakistan example is anything to go by, the future for child labor looks bleak. In 1994, Pakistan, the number one producer of footballs, joined the ILO'S International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor and in February 1999 initiated the Sialkot Project to end the use of child labor in football stitching. Yet, a report entitled 'The Football Stitching Industry of Pakistan' released in April 2002 by the Global March, a coalition against child labor, found that child labor was involved in the stitching of Coca Cola and Adidas footballs both of which are major sponsors of the FIFA 2002 World Cup.
Says Kailash Satyarthi, Chairperson of Global March, "We are putting pressure on the FIFA not to rely on the manufacturer's word alone, but to send its own team to monitor the football stitching industry, to ensure that its norms prohibiting child labor are followed."
But these measures are yet to be put in place and it will be some time before child laborers in South Asia can reclaim their childhood and play the game rather than be relegated to stitching footballs. Amidst the roar of applause for the heroes of the World Cup, will football fans hear the voices of child labor?