In 1995, around 50,000 stitchers in Sialkotmostly families working at homehand-stitched balls for top brands, with children undoubtedly helping. Stitching is a very poorly paid job. Payment per ball, depending upon quality, varies from 20-40 paise, with most workers able to stitch around 3 high-quality balls in a 10-hour shift. A days labour cannot pay for that days subsistence level meals for the family. Given that the state does not provide education, healthcare or even clean drinking water, these families barely scraped a living. To prevent relegation to the villages lowest status category, most stitching families concealed their source of livelihood.
In all this, the West seized on the involvement of children. In April 1995, courtesy a short CBS documentary, Americans were told that their footballs were being stitched by poor children in Sialkot. Media in the US and elsewhere picked up the CBS programme; advocacy groups pressured manufacturers to end the practice.
The football industry expressed indignation at learning of child labour and quickly formed a coalition of international sporting goods industry associations, notably SICA (Soccer Industry Council of America) and WFSGI, who represented the interests of their members (the international brands), and Sialkot-based suppliers represented by the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry. To further legitimise the coalition, the industry associations involved UNICEF, the ILO and Save the Children in a campaign to remove the taint of child labour from goods embossed with the (value-adding) prestigious logos of top Western sports companies.
The coalition did two things. First, it defined the problem as the legal issue of child labour (a violation of international law), overlooking its roots in socio-economic conditions. Second, the process was shifted from homes to monitorable stitching centres. The coalition also initiated micro-credit schemes and schools for soccer ball children. All this was done without consulting those at the heart of the problemthe stitching families.
Within a few years, child labour was eliminated from the supply chain. In Geneva in 1999, President Clinton praised the ILO for its role in eradicating child labour from Sialkot.
What the world did not know was what this successful campaign left in its wake. As the work shifted out of homes, nuclear families became the first casualty. Whereas before the entire family would sit together and stitch, now each adult worked in separate shifts. When women worked at home, they also looked after their children, cooked, cleaned and did other household chores. Stitching centres meant a) their stitching jobs would be public, b) leaving their little children alone at home, and c) commuting, which exposed them to derision and occasional sexual abuse. A staggering 75% of the women, once almost half of the stitchers, quit, plunging their families into abject poverty.
Meanwhile, less than 30% of the families that received micro-credit disbursed under the project were stitching families. Likewise, the education centres started being wound up in 2004, so their impact, though beneficial to a few families, was short-lived.
While the taint on footballs was removed and the ILO ticked all its boxes, the condition of the stitching families is worse than ever. My trip to Sialkot revealed that no one knew what had happened to many of the children involved. Some had migrated to the far more dangerous surgical goods manufacturing industry; others had attended hastily put up schools, dropped out and were working as tea boys or mechanics. Men and women, fighting for survival, were working 10-hour shifts in stitching centres for the same 1/day, while prices around them had increased manifold. Young children were not allowed to help their parents, even after school. Instead they returned from schools (often several miles away with no transport) to empty homes in the village, to all kinds of illicit activities.
In Western capitals, the Sialkot case has received accolades. But campaigners against child labour confuse symptoms with problems. Child labour is rooted in poverty and economic stagnation. Banning it merely lets it fester away from public gaze. Donors, campaigners and multinationals should take note.
The author teaches strategy and policy at the University of Cambridge & Lahore University of Management Sciences. This article is based on an academic paper he wrote with Farzad Khan of Lahore University