Children around the globe dream of someday playing in the World Cup, but few people know that thousands of them spend their days making soccer balls to help feed their families, unable to go to school or enjoy the game.

With the World Cup soccer finals, cohosted by Japan and South Korea, set to kick off on May 31, a company in Tokyo has begun selling what it boasts as “fair-trade soccer balls” to raise public awareness of the issue.

The soccer balls are produced by a manufacturer in Pakistan that only employs adults.

The workers are given a fair wage and welfare support, unlike a number of other adults and children in the industry in Pakistan who work for low wages and under severe conditions, without any welfare assistance, according to Joher Anjari of Fair Trade Co., located in Jiyugaoka in Meguro Ward, Tokyo.

“Poverty is the biggest reason children are exploited in the industry,” Anjari said. “If their families earn enough money to live on, their children won’t have to work and can go to school.”

In Pakistan, 15,000 children were engaged in the production of soccer balls in 2001, according to the International Labor Organization.

High-quality soccer balls are hand-made by stitching together patches of artificial leather, Anjari explained, noting that India and Pakistan are the world’s main producers.

Most of the workers are exploited, he said, noting that an adult male who makes soccer balls in India earns 20 rupees — about 56 yen — a day, or one-third of the minimum wage required by law.

Fair Trade Co. has its roots in Global Village, a nongovernmental organization set up 10 years ago. The NGO has promoted the “fair-trade” ideal, through which it supports small-scale producers in developing countries by selling goods that are made in an environmentally friendly manner.

The organization also tries to raise public awareness of the environment and human rights-related issues through its activities.

The NGO’s business arm was transformed into Fair Trade Co. five years ago, and the firm now imports more than 1,000 commodities from 20 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The goods include clothes made of organic cotton, accessories, stationery and organic food.

This year, Fair Trade Co. decided to import soccer balls made by Talon Sports in Sialkot, Pakistan, to raise awareness of the child-labor issue and to help improve working conditions for adults at the firm.

“It may be good to say ‘don’t buy footballs,’ ” Anjari said. “But what will people do then? They’ll just stop buying footballs? How are they going to play football? It is very important to give them an option.”

Anjari said that Fair Trade Co. pays $2 more per ball to Talon Sports, in addition to the normal price of the balls.

The manufacturer can thus pay its workers fairer wages, while additional resources are also used to provide employees with welfare assistance and low-interest loans.

Making soccer balls is a tiring job, as workers have to bend over the balls for a long time while stitching together the hard, artificial leather patches.

“Back problems are the most common maladies, and eyesight problems are also serious because they have to stitch at night as well,” Anjari said.

Although stitchers usually do not have access to company health-care programs, all the workers at Talon Sport are provided health care thanks to the welfare assistance, he said.

The additional resources are also used to provide the stitchers with low-interest loans, through which family members can set up small businesses. As their parents earn sufficient income, the children of Talon workers can go to school, Anjari said.

Last year, the soccer ball manufacturer produced about 45,000 balls, most of which were exported to Europe.

Fair Trade Co. introduced the “fair-trade ball” in Japan in early April, priced at 5,500 yen. The firm said this price is reasonable when compared with other brand-name soccer balls. Prices are kept down by limiting advertising spending.

The company is asking sporting goods stores in Japan to sell its balls, but this is not an easy gambit because most shops usually sell specific-brand goods, Anjari said.

“One thing we would like to ask big manufacturers is why are other balls made in such circumstances?” he said.

Global Village has supported Global March, an international NGO network working against child labor.

The Federation of International Football Associations mapped out regulations in 1996 that prohibit the use of child labor by all companies involved in the production of FIFA goods. The rules took effect sometime later but have not been followed, the network said.

Global March is currently compiling a petition to submit to FIFA to demand that it provide evidence that no children are employed in the soccer manufacturing industry.

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