Ontario, Friday, May 31, 2002
Soccer fans in record numbers will watch their favourite stars joust for the football during the World Cup matches that begin today in Japan and South Korea.
But factory workers and underage children who hand-stitch leather footballs in primitive conditions across Asia likely won't be tuning in.
While billions of fans are glued to television sets, these workers will be tied to their jobs in a modern form of "indentured labour: " Standing on factory floors working shifts that can last up to 20 hours in windowless factories dotting southern China. Or stuck in darkened homes with their parents in rural Pakistan, straining tiny and deformed fingers to stitch the tough leather used for a top-quality ball. Despite promises by big brand names and World Cup organizers to clean up their act, child labour and exploitative practices persist in sweatshops of Asia, researchers in Hong Kong, India and Pakistan claim.
As many as 10,000 children toil on soccer balls in western India's Punjab region, says the Global March Against Child Labour, an activist coalition. Another 15,000 children suffer a similar fate on the Pakistani side of the border near the crumbling colonial city of Sialkot.
The average adult wage for stitching a football in India is 20 rupees, or about 60 cents (Cdn) a day - even less for a child worker. That compares with the $149.99 retail price in Canada of a top-quality "Fevernova World Cup Match" soccer ball manufactured by Adidas, the main event sponsor.
A number of soccer stars have joined a protest against the use of child labour, signing a petition calling on FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association), the sport's governing body, to ensure "no child is employed in the football industry and the production of other FIFA-licensed goods" and that workers make a decent living wage and have the right to organize. Among the signatories are members of the Argentine national team, including Claudio Lopez and Diego Simeone, along with past and present stars from several countries.
Adidas management vehemently denies the accusations.
"Adidas-Salomon is able to state, categorically, that official Adidas footballs have not been stitched by underage workers (in Pakistan)," the company said in a statement last week.
"All production facilities are audited against our labour and health and safety standards for general compliance before they are approved for use," Adidas said, adding that balls pictured by Global March were "stitched by counterfeiters in villages (hundreds of kilometres) away from the locations where Adidas sources its product."
Leopoldo Esteban, co-ordinator of the World Cup campaign in Global March's New Delhi office, said that thanks to years of lobbying and investigations across South Asia, "the situation is improving for child labour, but labour conditions for adults are exactly the same." "Football prices are increasing, but not wages, nor the job security - absolutely nothing."
A pernicious side effect of the pressure campaign is that multinational companies, when confronted with complaints about child labour or dismal working conditions, merely switch suppliers. It's a revolving door that results in workers losing jobs, factory owners losing contracts, and researchers losing track of the production chain they're trying to reform. The latest trend is for the big brand-name producers of soccer balls to switch production from Pakistan and India to mainland China. Labour is abundant, costs are low, and it's easier to avoid scrutiny.
"It's very easy for the companies to cut and run, especially when they are put under pressure by a publicity campaign like this one," says researcher Monina Wong of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee. "But terminating a contract doesn't do any good for the workers."
Wong's research team fanned out this year into China's Guangdong province, across the border, to conduct the first-ever interviews with factory workers at three plants owned by Hong Kong and Taiwanese investors. They found a litany of abuses, from rampant overtime to untrammelled union-busting, and believe this is only an initial glimpse.
"The worker situation in mainland China resembles indentured labour found in primitive capitalist societies," concluded a report released this month by Wong's group.
Describing the conditions as "naked exploitation," it documented the harsh chemicals and intense heat used to tan tough leather, and the deformities and scarring suffered by young adults performing repetitive procedures from morning until night. The only good news was they found no evidence of child labour in China, but the researchers noted the bulk of production - and most hand-sewing - takes place in Fujian province, which was not accessible to them.
Production of soccer balls involves up to 50 stages, from leather cutting to steaming and stitching. In China, product matters more than personnel.
Typically, the large multinationals contract out production to little-known factories that are not closely monitored for adherence to codes of conduct.
But if Western consumers learn more about the abuses, the big multinationals may start taking a greater interest, Wong believes.
"The brand-name company must be responsible for what happens along the production chain," she argues. "It's becoming a cat-and-mouse game, with some factories falsifying and forging records."
Still, not all the fault lies with local factories. They are placed under intense pressure by the multinationals to produce high-quality footballs at the lowest possible price, Global March alleges. The demand for just-in-time delivery during the peak season often forces workers to perform unbearable amounts of overtime.
Global March is compiling a petition expected to reach 200,000 signatures for presentation to World Cup organizers in Tokyo. And it maintains an ongoing dialogue with Adidas, the event's main sponsor.
Chinese workers often come from remote and impoverished villages and lack official permission for factory work - which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation.
FIFA rejects charges it has ignored the problem, saying it's the only global sports body which is voluntarily and actively trying to eliminate abuses.
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WK VOETBAL 2002
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