Soccer’s Seamy Side: Child Labor and Abuse

Long after the fanfare of the World Cup soccer tournament dies down, harsh working conditions for the soccer-ball stitchers who make the competition possible will remain. Atrocious work is still pervasive across the industry—which pledged to reform following the “Atlanta Agreement” made 13 years ago. That supposedly bound major firms including Adidas and Nike to end child labor in soccer-ball factories.

But today in Pakistan, India, and China—the three biggest producers of soccer balls—child labor is still common, according to recent research from the Fair Play Alliance, an organization of international union confederations and worker-advocacy groups. Whatever the age of the worker, extremely low wages are the norm, the report says. In Pakistan, more than half of the 218 workers surveyed reported wages lower than the legal monthly minimum of $70, despite working 12 to 13 hours per day.

The report also highlighted abysmal working conditions, as in one Chinese factory where workers worked 21 hours per day during peak season without a day off the entire month. Stitching centers in India had no toilets or clean drinking water.

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The group also reports that temporary workers are increasingly common, as employers skirt what protections exist by never making temps permanent.

The industry’s biggest players, meanwhile, exercise enormous and growing control. Adidas made $1.6 billion in soccer-related sales in 2008, and is shelling out huge sums to sponsor 12 of the 32 national teams competing in the World Cup. Nike is sponsoring 10 squads, and has similarly huge pull in the soccer market, netting $1.7 billion in sales in 2008. Collectively, sponsors spent $3.2 billion on the event.

The International Labor Rights Forum is calling on you to confront the corporations that create these deplorable conditions by protesting to the head of FIFA, the World Cup’s governing body. FIFA has a policy against using balls made with child labor—but its clout has gone unused. Challenge it to change the industry by emailing FIFA’s president.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #376, July 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.