By the late 1990s, Pakistan had come to account for 75 percent of total world production of soccer balls (or “footballs,” as they are known in most countries), and 71 percent of all soccer ball imports into the United States. Most of this production was done in the industrial town of Sialkot, where soccer balls had been made for nearly a century. The work was—and remains—extremely labor intensive, with workers hand stitching together ball panels and gluing in inflatable bladders. Workers, often hired through sub-contractors, worked in stitching centers, village workshops and homes.
In 1996, the International Labor Rights Forum and allies called attention to rampant child labor in the soccer ball industry. According to investigations, thousands of children between the ages of 5 and 14 were putting in as many as 10 to 11 hours per day stitching. Prolonged stitching could cause damage to finger joints and back pain. Many of the children were working in bondage to their employers to pay off their parents’ debts.
As a result, the International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA) adopted a Code of Labor Practice for all manufacturers of balls carrying the FIFA label in September, 1996. Then, the International Labor Organization, UNICEF, Save the Children (UK), and the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry signed the Partners' Agreement to Eliminate Child Labour in the Soccer Industry in Pakistan on February 14, 1997 in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1999, relying on research conducted with the Association of Network for Community Empowerment (ANCE), ILRF released “Child Labor in the Soccer Ball Industry—A Report on Continued Use of Child Labor in the Soccer Ball Industry in Pakistan,” which was critical of progress on child labor eradication since the Atlanta Agreement.
ILO-IMAC now runs a sophisticated, computerized system of child labor inspections, with inspectors randomly dispatched to stitching centers and villages. The company Talon Sports has opened a manufacturing facility with health care and education programs funded through a “Fair Trade” premium, which is allocated by a joint worker and management committee. And the Child & Social Development Organization affiliated with the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce & Industry conducts programming on child labor, improved management and education.
Still, competition from machine stitching factories in East and Southeast Asia make Sialkot’s fate uncertain. Recently, layoffs at a major soccer ball plant have left thousands without jobs and rocked the industry. Other sectors, such as surgical instruments, continue to employ Sialkot children in even more brutal conditions. Beyond Sialkot and throughout Pakistan’s countryside, children work in blazing brick kilns and sun-drenched cotton fields.