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NikeBiz Labor: Child Labor & Soccer Balls
Child Labor and Soccer Balls

By far Nike's biggest mistake in labor practices was to begin to make a new line of products, without doing our homework on the production practices. Soccer balls.

In 1995, we first started to have soccer balls made in Pakistan. Typically hand-stitched, the best soccer balls were made in and around the city of Sialkot. Using a production practice that was decades old, leather panels cut by a factory were collected by middlemen, who provided the panels to subcontractors in the dozens of villages surrounding the city. Subcontractors delivered the pre-punched leather panels to stitchers, usually working in homes of mud or adobe, the typical bulk of housing in one of the poorest countries in Asia.

On one level, the system of providing soccer ball panels for home stitching made good sense. It allowed workers with other obligations, including rearing children, running a home, and tending to crops and livestock, the opportunity to earn cash income. The industry had functioned this way for decades.

But the home stitching of soccer balls also elevated the potential for exploitation. When Nike buyers arrived on the scene in the fall of 1995, no one could say for certain whether stitchers were paid the proper wages, or were of the proper age. Certainly, their work places – the simple homes of poor people – did not offer a good work environment.

We decided to find a different system, or stay out of the soccer ball business altogether.

In January 1996, Nike and our new, sole soccer ball supplier, Saga Sports, met in Oregon to begin to devise a plan for converting home work to a more controlled and monitored work environment. Saga's president, Khurshid Soofi, might have opted for the easiest approach: build a factory in the city, bus skilled stitchers to it, and eliminate home-work altogether.

But his concern was that such a system would tear apart the delicate fabric that binds the families of stitchers together. Villages are hours from the center of Sialkot. That would necessitate hours of daily commute time across a road system where accidents are common.

In April 1996, he proposed a plan to begin to construct a series of stitching centers to ring the Sialkot district. In effect, he proposed bringing stitchers out of the home, but not out of the village. Nike managers agreed, and pledged to support the new investment by paying higher prices for soccer balls.

Today, there are eight Saga stitching centers in the Sialkot district. They employ several thousand stitchers. The average age is 22, and the youngest stitcher is 18. Each of these centers has free lunch; a free medical clinic (available to the stitcher and his or her immediate family); a fair price shop to ensure workers have access to reasonably-priced commodities; day-care and kindergarten for children; and a recreation center. One center is dedicated solely to women, in a country where Islamic tradition does not allow men and women to share a workplace.

When the first center opened, in November 1996, Mr. Soofi called on all those interested in the issue of child labor to lower their voices and seek means to cooperate to eliminate this pernicious vice.

Fearful that calls for boycotts on the basis of child labor violations could wipe out jobs for thousands of deserving adults, Mr. Soofi said, "We need to have moral support from media, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and different federations for human rights, and of course anti-child labor organizations. Let us have the chance to accomplish a task for which they all have a grave concern."

Three years later, Saga is the acknowledged leader in an industry of change. While some argue the stitching center itself disrupts the work/life patterns of the traditional stitcher, and reduced opportunities for women to create earning power for a family, from our point of view, the first and biggest issue to solve was child labor. A controlled and monitored stitching center, where every Nike ball is produced, allows that to happen.

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