HIDDEN CHILD LABOR IN SOCCER BALLS PLANTS CONTRACTED BY NIKE AND REEBOK?
(Report of Campaign for labor rights 1.8.97)
|SUMMARY: In February 1997 representatives of the soccer ball
industry signed a Partnership Agreement with UNICEF and the International Labor
Organization to address the issue of child labor in the factories of South Asia where
soccer balls are sewn. But one- third of the way into the 18 month transition period, Dan
McCurry of FoulBall USA reports after a three-month trip to India and Pakistan that little
progress has been made.
BACKGROUND: When the June, 1996 issue of Life magazine carried an article about child labor in Pakistan, Nike knew that it was in trouble. The article's lead photograph showed 12-year-old Tariq hunkered over the hexagonal pieces of a Nike soccer ball which he would spend most of a day stitching together for the grand sum of 60 cents. In a matter of weeks, activists all across Canada and the United States were standing in front of Nike outlets, holding up Tariq's photo.
"It's an ages-old practice," was the blythe defense from Nike's Donna Gibbs, referring to the use of bonded child labor in Pakistan. But, as Max White of Justice: Do It Nike noted, "Nike went into Pakistan, knowing full well that child labor is an ages-old practice there and taking no precautions whatsoever to prevent the use of child labor in the production of its soccer balls. We have to conclude that Nike expected to profit from its Pakistani contractors' known usage of bonded child labor."
Nike was not alone in knowing that it had a peck o' trouble on its hands. The entire soccer ball industry, in which Nike and its rival Reebok are but third-string players, was receiving strong condemnation from an international human rights movement, called the FoulBall campaign, which seeks to eradicate child labor from soccer ball production and to replace child laborers with their adult family members.
The dominant theme of labor rights work lately is monitoring, with the FoulBall campaign no exception. Last summer, the soccer ball industry sought to pre-empt legislation and truly independent monitoring by writing a self-monitoring Partnership Agreement, which it rushed to cosign in February with UNICEF and the International Labor Organization. (Nike and Reebok, meanwhile, committed themselves to setting up stitching centers where production could be controlled and child labor prevented.) Now, one-third of the way into the 18-month transition period to which the industry committed itself, it's time for a status report.
FoulBall USA's Dan McCurry returned recently from a three-month visit to Pakistan and India, where he analyzed progress in the Partnership Agreement. According to the industry's own research, up to 20% of the balls brought to the U.S. continue to be stitched by children under the age of 14. Thousands of children toil for poverty wages while an industry telephone hotline strives to put a glass-half-full spin on the situation. McCurry: "Foot dragging, deliberate confusion and no strong leadership" best characterize the industry's fulfillment of the commitments it made. Only the potential for a World Cup boycott seems to be seriously getting the attention of the industry.
For FoulBall, the key issues remain: an independent, external monitoring system guaranteeing to consumers that no children stitched the balls and a solid education system providing basic learning and technical training to children whose impoverished families have for generations been excluded from education.
McCurry's own attempts at monitoring were sometimes frustrated by the very companies which have pointed to the Partnership Agreement as proof of their moral leadership in the industry. The worst offender in this regard was Nike, which never passes on an opportunity to remind the public that it has set up stitching centers in Sialkot, Pakistan where monitoring can prevent the use of child labor.
Actually, it is Nike and Reebok's contractors who have set up those centers. Reebok contracts for its soccer ball production with Moltex, and Nike with Saga. In fairness, while both Nike and Reebok have put considerable sums into make the stitching centers a reality, neither company is the major customer of its contractor and thus both companies have limited say in the operations of their contractors.
To its credit, Reebok readily granted access to its Moltex-managed center, to which McCurry made both announced and surprise visits. What McCurry saw at Moltex was not entirely reassuring: a potential for child-made balls from outside the factory to be shipped along with adult-made balls from within the factory -- a practice known as "mixing." When McCurry raised his concerns to Reebok officials, they appeared to take the findings seriously and promised to investigate and then get back to him. As of this writing, he is awaiting the Reebok reply.
Nike executives, on the other hand, twice refused McCurry's requests for visits to their Saga-managed center. The president of Saga also refused him admittance. Nike appears to prefer monitoring of its facilities by Andrew Young's (for-profit) GoodWorks International and the accounting firm of Ernst and Young -- institutions whose impartiality is unlikely to be tainted by actual knowledge of proven monitoring practices.
As a counter to industry claims that only they know how to monitor their facilities, during his visit to Pakistan, McCurry initiated an external monitoring system with one small company committed to ending child labor. "Adults make 80% of our soccer balls and consumers have a right to demand that this be a 100% adults-only product." McCurry declared. "We have demonstrated that when a company's leadership is determined to liberate/educate child ball stitchers, this political commitment becomes reality." While in India, McCurry also helped launch an NGO coalition against child-made sporting goods.
Important and horrific as child labor certainly is, seasoned labor rights advocates know that eliminating child labor doesn't necessarily end labor abuses. Case in point: In China, a recently released human rights prisoner detailed how he was forced to stitch soccer balls for the European Games -- balls which carried an approval label from soccer's highest authority. China is the world's single largest producer of sports equipment. FoulBall and its allies are already focusing on China's labor policies in forums such as the World Trade Organization, to which China seeks admission.
Next steps for FoulBall include a campaign to prohibit any child-made sporting goods from going to the Nagano, Japan Winter Olympics (in February of 1998) or to the (year 2000) Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. FoulBall has found that children are making many of the sporting goods used in Olympic-sanctioned games around the world. The campaign to end this practice, "Freedom Rings," lends new meaning to the familiar Olympic symbol.
FoulBall recommends letters to the following firms which dominate the soccer ball industry. Your letters should express your concern about foot-dragging in the implementation of the February 1997 Partnership Agreement to address child labor in the industry. Insist on implementation of independent monitoring to ensure that local suppliers do not use child workers. Equally important are employment of members of the families which lose the income from child laborers and implementation of promised social and education programs so children do not turn to more dangerous jobs or prostitution.
MITRE SPORTS INTERNATIONAL
LOTTO USA, INC
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