Fair Play Off the Pitch, too?

Text: Shehar Bano Khan, Journalist

For the European Football Championship, the ball is key. But how is the ball produced? The Pakistani city of Sialkot is considered by some the “world capital of ball manufacture” and in the 1990s it drew international attention for its child labour practices. But what are the conditions like today? An investigation.

As I drive through the congested, overcrowded streets of Sialkot, I strain to see signs of infrastructural development in this city acclaimed as the nerve centre of global football manufacturing. Roadsides teeming with vendors proudly display­ing their wares and selling almost anything under the sun, from fruits and vegetables to made-in-China knick-knacks, add to the confusion. In actual fact, the city’s buildings look more like makeshift solutions than the outcome of a well-thought-out urban development plan.

This city, located in the northeast of Punjab, Pakistan, has come to possess global significance as a leading manufacturer of hand-sewn footballs, a development which has taken Sialkot from a nonentity to one of the wealthiest cities in South Asia with its own airport and home to the recently launched Sial Airlines, a private initiative of the members of the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce. It is estimated that Sialkot’s sporting goods and apparel, surgical instruments, leather products, martial arts wear and sports footwear sold to nearly 40 international and 60 regional brands together comprise up to a tenth of Pakistan’s total export revenue.

Nonetheless, this statistical prosperity is in stark contrast to the reality of a life of deprivation endured by the majority of people living there. Although the city employs roughly 400,000 people in its export-oriented units and supports around 100,000 vendor jobs all over the country, this purported affluence is restricted to only a lucky few. Most other people do not even earn the minimum wage of Rs 17,500 (€ 105), determined by the Government of Punjab and even that wage would be insufficient to sustain the average Pakistani family.

“Sialkot is a paradise for workers”

One of the few to benefit from the boom was Mr Adeel Tanvir1, Chief Executive of Theta Industries2, a major manufacturer of football and sports equipment in Sialkot. As we enter Tanvir’s factory premises for an interview, it is difficult to ignore a fleet of gleaming cars parked in the forecourt. Saad, the photographer accompanying me, excitedly starts clicking away and with a wink comments, “Mr Tanvir is making too many footballs.”

In no time, the two of us are whisked across the forecourt and led into a plush room dominated by a wide rectangular table. Seated behind it is Tanvir, who stands to greet us. Over lunch, served in his office, he tells us about his factory, his cars and his home, which itself spans more than an acre (4,046 square metres). “Sialkot is a paradise for workers, and at least as far as my factory is concerned, I can assure you that there’s no child labour or labour violations and women are paid the same salary as men,” says Tanvir.

After lunch I am given a tour of the factory to gauge Tanvir’s claims of a para­disiacal working environment for myself. The factory manager and Tanvir’s son show me the various rooms and halls where football and other sports-related equipment is manufactured. Mr Tanvir Jr assures me that Theta Industries maintains the highest manufacturing standards in the area. Those highest levels, as interpreted by him, mean committing to international labour standards and ensuring that those laws are not violated. “You have seen for yourself that there are no children employed here. If we hired children, our factory would be shut down and we’d be put out of business,” assures Tanvir Jr.

In the 1990s child labour in ball manufacturing caused international uproar

Although the football manufacturing industry of Sialkot, comprising Theta Industries and others, now asserts its commitment to inviolable labour rights, the memory of past exploitive practices and the employment of children in the manufacture of footballs still lingers.

This exploitation first drew international attention when in 1996 several trade unions and non-governmental organisations discovered the employment of children at football manufacturing sites in Sialkot supplying such international brands as Nike, Puma, Adidas, Decathlon and Reebok. The following year, an international agreement was signed by the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry, the International Labour Organization, UNICEF and the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, to eliminate child labour in the football industry in Pakistan. Within a span of 18 months, the Sialkot football manufacturing industry had cleared itself of the allegations.

The factory of the Pakistani sporting goods manufacturer Forward Sports based in Sialkot. Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

“That was more than 20 years ago and, as I told you, we would be put out of business if we breached that law,” reassures Tanvir Sr. That may be true for his factory, but my sources, who spoke to me on conditions of anonymity, have informed me that children are still involved in making footballs – if not as regular employees at factories, definitely as part of families hired to work from home. I decide not to pursue the matter any further, however, and continue on with the manager to visit the wing of the factory where the women work.

„When we meet, the woman entreats me to let theworld know how workers, especially women, are exploited by the billionaires of Sialkot.“

None of the workers dare respond to the question about working conditions

On entering, I see a group of women sitting on the factory floor brushing dust off of boxing gloves. At first, they look at me with suspicion and wonder why I am there. When I speak to them in their local dialect, some of them relax and two of them even manage a smile. When I ask if they are satisfied with the working conditions, I assume it is a relatively simple question, but for the women working there it apparently is not. Not a single one of them responds and they continue to gaze vacantly at me. After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, Saima Kayani3, the section manager, intervenes to fill the lull. “There is no discrimination here. Men and women are treated equally. Tanvir Sahib4 is an extremely generous employer,” raves Kayani. I, on the other hand, wonder why, if there is no discrimination and Tanvir is ‘an extremely generous employer’, the women look so despondent. Why are they hesitating to talk to me?

Before leaving the factory, I give all the women my mobile number in the hopes that at least some of them will contact me. A short time later, I receive a call from one of them and we agree to meet at 9 p.m. after she finishes work.

When we meet, the woman from Theta Industries takes my hand and entreats me to let the “world” know how workers, especially women, are exploited by the billionaires of Sialkot. I ask her who the billionaires of Sialkot are and the Phedra woman’s quick response is: “Mr Tanvir and everybody like him.”

The dilemma of child labour in poor societies

Mariam Khatoon5 is approximately 65 years old (she is not able to give me her exact age) and has come to Sialkot from a nearby village in the hopes of providing for her family after her husband died, leaving her and her six children on their own. Before the ban on child labour was imposed in 1997, Khatoon and the three eldest children worked at two factories in Sialkot stitching footballs for inter­national brands. “I don’t know the names of those brands. All we did was make footballs by hand. And then suddenly I was told that my children could no longer come to the factory because the factory owner did not want children to work,” Khatoon explains. She is not familiar with the concept of forced child labour and tells me that she needs her children to work, otherwise there will be no food at home. “I was the only member of the family earning money – tell me, how else was I to feed my children?” Khatoon asks. Frankly, I had no answer to give to this woman who had never gone to school and for whom international covenants forbidding child labour are irrelevant. The essential foundation of her existence is the food that keeps her children alive.

Arshad Mirza, Executive Director of the non-governmental organisation “Baidaree”. Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Women’s wages are lower than men’s

Mariam has worked at Theta Industries for 14 years. To reach the factory by 8:30 a.m., she gets up at 5 a.m. every day. She and the other women work beyond the official hours of 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., but unfortunately are only paid Rs 200 (€ 1.19) overtime, which can go as late at 8 or even 9 p.m. The men also face similar hardships and are paid poorly for overtime. In a male worker’s case, the overtime rate is Rs 500 (€ 2.98) though this carries no healthcare benefits and certainly no social security.6

„Most of the factory owners believe in maximising profit without complying with the international labour standards. “

Mariam’s biggest grievance is that women’s wages are less than men’s. She tells me that the average salary of a man at a factory in Sialkot is between Rs 16,000 and Rs 17,000 (about € 95–101) per month, while a woman’s is between Rs 10,000 and Rs 12,000 (about € 59 –71). After 14 years of work, her salary was recently raised to Rs 14,000 (€ 83), but her life’s trials remained un­diminished. Without any healthcare or social security benefits, it is difficult for Mariam to make ends meet. “There are other issues now. If I fall sick or someone in my home is ill, the factory owners don’t help. We have to survive with our salary because they show no responsibility towards us as workers,” she laments.

There are numerous labour law violations, critics say

To investigate these allegations, I arranged two meetings: the first is in Lahore with Mr Farooq Tariq, General Secretary of the Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee (PKRC), a network of peasants’ organisations in Pakistan. The second is with Mr Arshad Mirza, Executive Director of Baidaree, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that campaigns for labour rights and women’s empowerment, at his office in Sialkot. The meeting with Tariq is most informative and he does not show any restraint in admitting there are many problems with labour law violations. “One of the prime indicators is a strict proscription on trade unions and collective bargaining. At the moment, we have ‘yellow unions’ or unions which, with tacit approval from the employers, act to the detriment of the workers,” Tariq shares. “It is naive to assume that child labour is no longer a problem or that the industry, specifically football, exemplifies endorsement of international labour standards,” says Tariq.

Mr Arshad Mirza’s account is not substantially different from Mr Tariq’s. After years of working in the area of rights protection, specifically labour rights, Mirza has vast insight into the business practices of local football manufacturers. “Most of the factory owners believe in maximising profit without complying with the international labour standards.” Mirza, who besides his work also advises the local manufacturer “Forward Sports” in matters of labour law and compliance, states that there are also positive examples in the industry. Adidas, for instance, one of the clients of Forward Sports, has set up its own monitoring mechanism to investigate violations against labour law. This mechanism in­volves a regular survey of workers’ satisfaction as well as making a hotline available to all workers where they can lodge complaints directly.

Technological change is putting Sialkot under pressure

Mirza also talks about the consequences of technological changes which have led to a shift in the manufacturing of footballs away from hand-stitched to machine-made and how that has impacted the workers in Sialkot. “Before 2010, when footballs were hand-stitched, Sialkot provided 75 per cent of footballs to the international market. But then China started manufacturing balls by machine, which, though they were cheaper, did not have the quality of handsewn Sialkot balls. Exports of footballs from Sialkot fell by 30 to 40 per cent, and several factories had to close or reduce their workforce.”

According to Mirza, the change due to modern technology affected women most detrimentally. Some of the factories in Sialkot, however, decided to stem the decline in football exports by buying machinery to improve their production processes. The latest technology is thermo-bonded balls 7, a technique developed by Adidas, the primary customer, and it is constantly being perfected by the local producers in Sialkot.

Shazia – participant of the Adidas programme – produces sportswear in a back room. Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Adidas launched an initiative for women workers who had been laid off

Still, what happened to all those workers who suddenly lost their jobs? Mirza tells me about an initiative he runs that the NGO Baidarie developed together with Adidas. In 2017, the global sports giant launched a financial support programme aimed at relocating and extending sustainable livelihood opportunities to women workers. “Adidas intends to equip a select group of women who work from their homes with locally marketable, demand-driven skills. It is a highly ambitious programme designed to create opportunities for the intro­duction of trained women workers into the formal sector,” explains Mirza.

One of those women is Shazia, who lives with her husband and her month-old baby in a spartan three-room home. Rocking her baby in a cradle, she tells me how she came into contact with the Adidas programme. After the initial train­ing at Baidaree on how to start a home-based micro business, Shazia and her hus­band created a Facebook page to connect to international sports brands. For over a year now, Shazia and her husband have been selling sportswear they produce on three sewing machines in a back room of their house to international brands. “I am happy I can buy things for my home and clothes for my son,” says Shazia shyly.

I wondered: what is the situation like in the outskirts of Sialkot?

Still, I wondered, too, what the situation is like for untrained women workers in the informal sector and, if the focus of international attention is mainly on Sialkot, what that means for the surrounding areas. I knew that on the outskirts of Sialkot many companies subcontract their production and indirectly employ unskilled workers. How are these workers now? How are they dealing with technological change? Thus, my photographer and I decided to drive to Ugoki, a town 20 minutes by car from Sialkot.

Rundown and derelict, the town of Ugoki is in fact a clear indictment of affirmations espousing commitment to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Its ramshackle tenements guard the dark secrets of Sialkot’s football manufacturing industry. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is not readily forthcoming, as the people of Ugoki are wary about providing information. The moment the word football is uttered, they become tense and reticent.

After walking through the narrow unpaved alleys of Ugoki, I knock randomly on a half-closed door. A few seconds later, a young boy’s small head peeks through the door, quickly followed by an enquiring woman’s voice in the background. I quickly step inside the extremely small courtyard where a woman is standing holding a baby a few months old. Tugging at her shirt is another little one, whose dust-smeared face looks delighted by the stranger’s intervention. And just as suddenly yet another child springs out from a room squeezed into a corner of the courtyard.

„The town of Ugoki is in fact a clear indictment of affirmations espousing commitment to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. “

The village of Ugoki shows: children are still sewing footballs

Living in a dilapidated shanty home with her husband and four children, Razia’s happiness seems extraordinary. She tells me that local agents of football factories in Sialkot regularly come to Ugoki to hire people to make footballs. She invites me into the room where she keeps the football material. The tiny room is taken up entirely by a huge bed where apparently the entire family sleeps. Razia tells me that her children help her with the football production. “Nearly every child in Ugoki is involved in football making. We have no choice, for how will we survive otherwise?” She proudly shows me a wooden frame and a pack of the 32 panels required to make footballs by hand. “We get Rs 50 (€ 0.30) for making one football. I try to make at least four every day. This is the only work around here. I am the third generation in football stitching and many who live here in Ugoki have been making footballs by hand for one or two generations,” Razia says.

Before I leave, I ask Razia if there are good schools around here. “Good schools? No, there are no good schools, but even if there were, nobody in Ugoki could afford them. I want my children to go to university, but as Christians we can only find employment as cleaners,” explains Razia. I leave Razia’s house deeply disturbed by the legally concealed exploitation of human beings and their poverty. On the one end of the global supply chain is phenomenal profit while on the other there is heart-wrenching poverty. While a few companies like Adidas help women like Shazia in Sialkot through specific training programmes to develop skills in order to overcome precarious working conditions, there are still thousands of women workers and their fami­lies in Pakistan for whom the situation has not improved at all in the last 20 years. Even though the issues of the informal sector and home-based subcontracting are not a recent phenomenon, it seems many global brands do not extend their auditing schemes and training programmes to the very people who are in great need of them. It is evident from my experiences in Ugoki that responsibility and accountability are in short supply.

„The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights can only be effectively implemented if workers are given a fair share of the benefits. That unfortunately is a long distance to cover.“

Arshad Mirza

Any convention or law remains ineffective unless fortified by concomitant enforcement

On the drive back, my thoughts drift to the name of the official match ball of the European Championship, Uniforia, and its corresponding marketing message. The name “Uniforia” alludes to the integrative power (unity) and the euphoria that football can bring. “The European Championship is a great opportunity to show the power that is inherent in a community,” said Adidas product designer Anika Marie Kennaugh on the occasion of the first ball presentation. But how far does this ‘community’ reach? Not to Sialkot where the ball is produced, and even less so to Ugoki where there is neither euphoria nor community. How can this be remedied?

I recall Mr Mirza’s words and their great insight into why international brands choose Sialkot: “Sialkot is primarily attractive to companies because they have access to cheap labour here. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights can only be effectively implemented if workers are given a fair share of the benefits. That unfortunately is a long distance to cover.”

Any convention or law passed to guard against rights violations and human exploi­tation remains ineffective unless fortified by concomitant enforcement. If Sialkot is a supposed personification of the success of the football industry’s global supply chain, Ugoki is an illustration of its failure.

Tedious manual work: the people in Ugoki receive no more than 30 cents for a football. Photo: Sohail Shahzad


Name changed by the editors
Name changed by the editors
Name changed by the editors
A form of formal address for a man
Name changed by the editors
The concept of social security for the labour force does not exist in Pakistan, at least not as a matter of contractual agreement between an employer and the worker. Nonetheless, in elite organisations employees are granted social security and healthcare benefits.
The thermo bonding technology means that the surface of the ball is not stitched, but thermally glued.
share page