Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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The Truth About Sports Balls

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, March 9/08

Zack Gross

As Fair Trade Manitoba’s One Month Challenge winds down, it can be said that a growing trend in local consumerism is ethical purchasing. 

Compared to just a few years ago, the number of commercial outlets carrying fair trade food products has increased significantly, with the likes of Safeway, Sobey’s, Co-op and Superstore joining the small, green businesses and non-profits that have pioneered fair trade over the past twenty years.  Beyond foods, such as coffee, tea, sugar, dried fruit, chocolate and so on, the private sector is now looking at increasing its market share of other items, potentially one of the biggest being sports balls.

Ten years ago, the world media picked up on the fact that large corporations, such as Nike and Reebok, were using kids to stitch together soccer balls for about 60 cents a day.  The standard soccer ball, the vast majority of which are manufactured in Pakistan, was made of leather and needed 690 hand stitches.  Child below fourteen years of age and even as young as eight, due to the abject poverty of their families, were forced to do this work, rather than being able to attend school and, thus, had no way out of the cycle of poverty and human rights abuses they suffered.

Corporations realized that they had both public relations and profit-making dilemmas on their hands.  First of all, they floated the argument that “it has ever been thus” but that didn’t wash with activists and regulators.  The next step was to disclaim that they could do anything about the situation, that they couldn’t control what factories did and were unaware when abuses took place.  The argument that was made against that assertion was that companies had the financial power and the moral duty to impose and police regulations on their branch plants. 

Companies, whose actions have been characterized as “foot dragging, deliberate confusion and no strong leadership” by industry critics, then moved some of their operations to countries such as India and China, but those who followed their trade to these new locations found the same abuses. 

Indeed, it was revealed that some balls that were labeled “ethical purchase” weren’t actually “fair trade”, that is they met some minimal requirement but were not certified by an independent third party.  In one case, a factory, which labeled its product “No Child Labour”, had adult workers stitching balls in their own homes, knowing that the whole family would need to do it full-time in order to make a living. 

FoulBall USA, a sports ball watchdog, reports that, even after ten years of advocacy, at least twenty percent of balls imported into North America are still a product of child labour.  Advocates are focusing on major sports events, such as the Olympics and other elite regional games, hoping to use those forums to push the “no sweat” and “no child labour” campaigns.  Olympic-wear for the public and athlete uniforms have not met these standards in the past.

In very recent years, organizations such as the YMCA and Transfair Canada have worked to import fair trade sports balls into Canada.  Fair trade regulations ensure that adult workers are paid a fair wage and work in safe and clean conditions.  The balls are made of polyurethane artificial leather, easier and cleaner to work with.  Y Focus and Service Clubs often connect sale and use of these balls with a “fair trade premium
,” that is selling them for an extra 20% which goes into community development projects, or distributing and using the balls at recreational fundraising events.  The company Talon Sports has been a corporate leader in producing fair trade sports equipment.

FIFA, the International Federation of Football Associations, world soccer’s governing body and therefore, arguably, having one of the largest audiences in the world, reached a deal with companies to move away from using child labour to produce their soccer balls back in 2000.  Along with fair trade soccer balls, North American style footballs, basketballs, volleyballs and rugby balls are also now available. 

More and more commercial outlets are carrying these and they can occasionally be found not just in the smaller outlets, but at Canadian Tire and other chain stores.

It seems absurd that people would want to eat food, wear clothes or use equipment that has been made in slavery conditions.  One might expect that we would be put off such products, and the truth is that once the public is made aware of human rights abuses, they do vote with their consumer dollars. 

Publicity about child labour in sports balls has brought about real change over a relatively short period of time, just as the movie Blood Diamond caused jewelry shoppers to look for alternatives, which of course caused merchants to do the same. 

The old saying is that the truth shall set us free and, sometimes too slowly, the truth is setting free children around the world working in factory and fields, in terrible conditions for little or no pay.  We need to keep spreading the word and applying pressure.

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.

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