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Meerut's kids ask FIFA to show child labour the red card

2006 footballWith the FIFA World Cup 2006 already past the halfway mark, everyone’s glued to their television sets watching the ‘beautiful game’. But for thousands of children employed in football-manufacturing factories across north India, the football represents something else altogether. These children have little time for school or for play, much less a chance to catch any of the football action. They all work for a meagre living stitching footballs for large companies.

Children as young as six are employed in the football-manufacturing industry right across Meerut, which, along with Jalandhar in neighbouring Punjab, is the hub of India’s sports goods industry. “The children dare not dream of playing with footballs, as they are too busy stitching the balls together,” says Kailash Satyarthi, head of the child rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), or Save Childhood Campaign, and of Global March Against Child Labour. “Even after a full day’s work the children can only produce a maximum of two footballs each… They (their employers) are employing these tender hands but pay only between Rs 3 and Rs 5 for stitching a ball -- it is almost 40 times less than its retail price.”

And so, supported by BBA, several children have appealed to the sport’s international governing body, FIFA, to blow the whistle on this form of child labour. Children working in factories in Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district have sent a memorandum to FIFA and other football associations asking them, and sports goods companies, to make sure that no child was employed in the football-making industry. They have also asked that working children who have been ‘rescued’ be properly rehabilitated.

“We wish that football becomes an instrument of pleasure, harmony and unity for all in the world. However, we appeal that this should not happen at the cost of our childhood, education and development,” reads the letter.

When BBA carried out surveys in villages around Meerut, they saw working children with cuts on their fingers that had become septic. Like nine-year-old Akram whose palm was covered in bandages. He was cutting leather and rexine pieces with a knife when he cut his palm. Akram and his younger brother, Gulzar, work 10 hours a day and earn Rs 3 for every ball they stitch.

Since their earnings are based on the number of footballs they stitch, the children stitch as fast as they can, sitting in hunched positions that often cause them severe backache. “Also, inadequate lighting has ruined many children’s eyesight,” says Satyarthi.

BBA recently rescued 20 child labourers from football-manufacturing units in Meerut. “On paper, these children’s names are on school registers, but in reality they have never been to school,” he says. “Apart from cruelly exploiting them, they (their employers) are also taking away their childhood.” 

Entire families, including minor children, are involved in stitching footballs. Six to seven members of a family work long hours to produce around 10 balls; they barely manage to earn Rs 30-40 a day. Nine-year-old Uma, who helps her mother, sister and brother stitch footballs, says she is enrolled in Class 3 but has been unable to attend school. Then there’s Shalini, who is not a football fan but likes playing kho-kho. Shalini says she has little time for the game since she joined her seven sisters and two brothers in stitching footballs to make ends meet.

According to Satyarthi, a similar campaign mounted during FIFA World Cup 2002 resulted in FIFA introducing a code of conduct, in collaboration with the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI), aimed at monitoring the elimination of child labour in India and Pakistan’s soccer ball industry.

-- InfoChange News & Features, June 2006
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