Europe, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Don’t Kick the Football Makers

Jess Smee

BERLIN, Apr 2 2006 (IPS) - With tickets to the World Cup in Germany hard to come by, millions of fans are calming their football fever buying World Cup T-shirts, toys and, of course, footballs.

But just two months before the games kick off in Munich (Jun. 9), few shoppers spare a thought for the workers toiling on the footballs behind the scenes, thousands of miles from the glitz of the German stadiums.

Booming merchandise sale means that producers in the developing world are rushing to complete orders in time, charities say. Under such pressure international sporting goods companies admit it is a struggle to keep working conditions up to scratch.

“Some factories repeatedly fail to improve factory conditions, and when that happens we stop working with them,” Reiner Hengstmann, global head of social and environmental affairs with the German sports goods company Puma told IPS.

Hengstmann, who spends much of his time monitoring factories worldwide, added that the firm cut ties with 33 suppliers last year, mostly due to low wages and excessive overtime of more than 60 hours a week.

The ball that will get kicked on the World Cup pitches is called the ‘Teamgeist’, meaning team spirit. These footballs have been made by Adidas in Thailand where the pieces are thermally bonded together. But worldwide most balls are still sewn together by hand.

Some 80 percent of all footballs are made in Sialkot in north-eastern Pakistan. The city is a key exporter of sporting goods, but working conditions are tough.

Companies like Nike, Adidas and Puma manufacture in Sialkot, and production is at full tilt ahead of the World Cup.

Adidas doubled its football stitching centres in the area last year, but rapid growth led to problems with the working environment. Several production centres were found to be sub-standard, and were closed down.

Concern about conditions prompted Adidas to tighten monitoring of key issues such as proof of age, payment, and safety, the firm said in its latest environmental and social report.

Football production in Sialkot first hit the headlines ahead of the 1998 World Cup in France when it was revealed that child labour was common, and working conditions often appalling.

Consumer outrage sparked a change of tactics by international companies. Production within homes, which had led to widespread use of child labour, was banned, and workers were moved to new football stitching centres.

This reform largely stopped children from working, but it worsened conditions for many families, according to the German charity Brot für die Welt.

With the creation of the stitching centres, women – who in the Islamic culture of Pakistan were not allowed to work in the same environment as men – lost out on important income. Wages remained the same, and many families were unable to buy essentials.

But most shoppers do not consider the social cost of their new football. Amid rising World Cup fever, the German fair trade organisation Gepa is trying to boost awareness of the conditions in which footballs are made. Under the banner ‘Fair Pay-Fair Play’, it is aiming to help workers in Sialkot by paying a decent price for the footballs it buys.

Stitching the panels of a football takes about an hour and a half, and Gepa pays its trading partner, the football manufacturer Talon Sports, a premium of between 40 cents and one dollar per ball, according to quality.

This payment is a premium Gepa pays on top of an agreed price. Gepa says it has paid some 260,000 dollars in premiums through its trading relationship with Talon Sports.

Gepa’s fairly traded balls sell for between 9.95 euros (12 dollars) and 56.95 euros (68 dollars), ranging from a mini-ball for children to a FIFA stamped professional ball.

Gepa says its premium increases wages and sets up small loans. This enables workers to start other businesses, making them less dependent on seasonal soccer ball production. Health and education facilities are also established, including a pre-school for workers’ children and free healthcare for workers and their families.

Talon Sports says the scheme is a welcome antidote to consumers’ bargain hunting.

“In Europe people want to buy footballs as cheaply as possible, and that hits earnings,” Ammar Faisal al-Assad, manager of Talon Sports, said in a press statement. “Through fair trade many people have become aware of the people behind the footballs.”

Gepa has seen sales soar ahead of the World Cup, but fairly traded balls make up a tiny percentage of the footballs kicked about on pitches and backyards around the world. Talon Sports produces two million balls a year, of which just five percent are fair trade.

Many football-stitching centres do not adhere to standards. The problem is the smaller ventures which often exploit workers to keep prices down, says Barbara Schimmelpfennig at Gepa.

“The grey zone is cheap no-name footballs which are produced without the standard controls of big firms,” she told IPS. “Business for these centres booms before key events like the World Cup…and disappears soon afterwards.”

Over the past few years Nike, Adidas and Puma have all taken steps to clean up their football and clothing production lines. They have teams checking factory conditions and interviewing workers. Social and environmental departments publish extensive annual reports charting their progress.

This follows high-profile campaigns from human rights campaigners and consumers over the past decade.

“NGO’s have given this issue more momentum,” Adidas spokeswoman Anne Putz told IPS. Charities have highlighted problems with several Adidas suppliers in the past, she said.

Earlier this year Puma took links with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) a step further when it became the first sportswear company to forge an alliance with such a group. It announced that the group Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) would monitor conditions at the facilities of two suppliers in El Salvador over a year.

Although both the CCC and Puma welcomed the move, the German branch of the pressure group urged caution.

As firms seek even lower prices and shorter delivery times, working conditions inevitably suffer, Maik Pflaum of CCC told IPS. That means the task of keeping factory conditions up to standard remains gargantuan.

“The problem is the gap between what’s on paper and what goes on in practice,” Pflaum said. “Big firms now have social and environmental reports but there is still a lot of window dressing for the European market.”

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