The child labour debate is maturing slowly

Back in 2002 I used to run CSR (as it was then!) workshops with some academics from Warwick Business School.

One of our case studies was child labour in Pakistan, and how eliminating it cost some 20,000 women (home workers) their jobs (monitoring in the home is tough!).

The question was: what did eliminating it achieve for key areas like child poverty, education, female empowerment and sustainable economic development? Answer: Not much, in fact it did more harm than good. This was according to an academic who had worked on/researched the case itself in Pakistan.

As most of us in the corporate responsibility world (sorry, corporate sustainability) know, child labour in global supply chains is a terrible thing, but some of it is better than the alternative, as I argued in this posting a while back.

With the global population exploding, however, this issue is not going to go away. So we need a more mature debate about the whole issue. The media has to play its part.

Perhaps, in some circles this is happening. For example a recent headline in the sober Spiegel news magazine, “The Football Stitchers of Sialkot” highlights the same problems as we discussed in workshops with corporates in 2002. If you don’t want to click on the link, here’s the summary:

“The city of Sialkot in Pakistan produces as many as 60 million hand-stitched footballs in a World Cup year. The firms here are running out of new workers since child labor was abolished. Western buyers may have a clear conscience, but the children of Sialkot now toil in the local brickworks instead.”

The article points out that: “On average the people of Sialkot earn €1,000 euros ($1,370) a year, twice the national average, thanks to the sports goods industry” and has a good quick description of the global supply chain:

“It’s a long route from the stitching rooms of Sialkot to the professional football pitches of Europe and America. First you get the sub-subcontractors — the stitching centers, the backroom workshops, the one-man businesses. Add to that the subcontractors, the transport firms, the customs offices, the sports equipment giants, the advertising industry, the sports good retailers and the department stores. The chain converts a 63-rupee ball into a product costing more than €100. Everyone wants a cut. And someone has to come up with the millions of euros for the football stars, the expensive advertising icons of the sports brands.”

It’s the second section of the story, here, that really interests me:

“The Pakistani suppliers have had a good reputation among global sports firms ever since child labor was officially banned here. Children as young as 10 years old used to stitch footballs until there was an international outcry about it. The sports companies, accustomed to nurturing their image with huge sums of money, got worried about their reputation. So they sided with human rights campaigners and exerted pressure. In 1997, Pakistani suppliers and representatives of Unicef and the International Labor Organization signed the Atlanta Agreement in which the industry agreed to stop the use of child labor.

Thousands of children lost their jobs overnight. To make it easier for the sports groups to control the ban, the big domestic manufacturers prohibited people from working at home and built stitching centers instead. Pakistan now has the Independent Monitoring Association for Child Labor (IMAC), which regularly visits factories and checks the workers’ papers.”

And, bear with me here on the long quotes, the story goes on to point out that:

“The case of Saga Sports is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a child is caught stitching footballs these days. Nike cancelled its contract with the company in 2006 because of it and Saga, once one of the city’s biggest employers, is virtually bankrupt today. The managers of Forward Sports, Comet Sports, Capital Sports and the smaller manufacturers in the city paid close attention to the fate of their competitor.

Parents now send their children to the brickworks and into metalworking companies where no one is worried about corporate image. The families need the money to survive. The local sports companies are aware of what’s happened but they want to fulfil the wishes of their Western customers. After all, the people who spend a lot of money on footballs want to do so with a clear conscience. The customer in a sports retail outlet doesn’t realize that young girls are now hauling bricks right next door to Danayal, the stitching factory.

“Ten or 12-year-olds were well off here,” says one manager who asked not to be named. “They learned a trade here that secured them an income for life. Now we’re having trouble finding new stitchers.””

All these quotes above that support my earlier argument about child labour don’t mean the monitoring system and its participants will ever let child labour back in, even under the conditions I discuss in my earlier blog post.

Too much has been invested. And Adidas, Nike, et. al., cannot sell my argument yet.

But perhaps with a few more years of articles like this Spiegel piece I quoted from above, we can begin having a more mature conversation about child labour and what to do about it.

P.S. In this month’s issue of Ethical Corporation, we’ve got a special ten page report on what the leading brands, including Nike, are doing to help suppliers get up to ethical speed.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    What goes around comes around. It is a typical Pakistani mindset that the owners of these businesses instead of sharing their earnings with the community by modernizing the manufacturing processes, infrastructure and keeping up to date with the changing global trends, instead went for the short term to put everything in their own pockets only. They never hedged themselves against the potential risks, and showed limited foresight capacity of building a strong foundation for a sustainable industrial base in the long term. They deserve to be out witted by competitors.

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