News Update

World Cup Football a Potential Path to Peace, Fair Trade

Posted June 28th 2010

Article for Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday, June 26/10

by Zack Gross

Life didn’t have to end for sports enthusiasts this spring after two months of Stanley Cup hockey playoffs. Within a couple of days, a month of World Cup football, or what we call soccer, began. However, for the very poor people who do the hard work in the world sports ball industry, unfair labour practices is a source of grave concern. Fair Trade activists are targeting the NEXT World Cup, in 2014 in Brazil, to attempt to make the sport more socially responsible. In the meantime, some of the sports’ greatest stars are having some impact in calling on their countries to end internal conflict and pay attention to social and human rights concerns.

Three-quarters of all footballs are sewn in the impoverished Sialkot region of northern Pakistan. Forty thousand people, including children, manufacture these balls, as well as volleyballs and rugby balls, in Pakistan, with other sources being India, China and Indonesia. Some of this work is done in factories, but much is also done in workers’ homes where they receive the ball pieces ready for stitching. As ball-makers are paid by the amount they finish, rather than by the hour, their wages amount to one-third of the minimum wage in India. Thus, they must work overtime, usually ten to twelve hours per day. Studies by the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) show that thousands of children aged five to fourteen also work alongside their parents in this industry to supplement their meager incomes or to pay off family debts.

Although the soccer ball industry signed onto the “Atlanta Agreement” in 1997, committing to clean up their practices, the Fair Trade Alliance, made up of unions and consumer organizations, continues to report regular violations, and brought out a public report on June 7th, just as the World cup was getting under way. “It is a scandal that so many workers are subjected to appalling exploitation in an industry that generates so much wealth”, said an FTA spokesperson. Aside from below-minimum wages, other issues that were highlighted included discrimination against female workers, extraordinarily long working days (twenty-one hours per day seven days per week in one Chinese factory), and lack of amenities (no water, toilet or medical supplies).

Strides toward fair trade production in sports balls are being made as a number of organizations and private companies take on the child labour issue in particular. Forbes Magazine recently covered Fair Trade Sports, a company started by Scott James of Washington State in the US, who left Microsoft to start his firm when confronted by the image of his own children having to earn such a hard living. He now employs unionized Pakistani workers and his equipment is certified by the Fair Trade Labeling Organization. Scott also invests a portion of his profits in two charities, the Boys & Girls Clubs locally and Room to Read, which builds libraries in Africa. Another example of promotion and sales of fair trade sports balls, this time in Canada, is the work of the Ottawa YMCA “Y Focus” Sports program which distributes fair trade sports balls across our country.

The global sports movement didn’t enhance its image when the International Olympic Committee banned the Right to Play humanitarian organization from this year’s Vancouver Winter Games. Right to Play, based in Toronto, uses sport and play programs in twenty-three impoverished and conflict-zone countries to improve health, develop life skills and foster peace for children and communities. At first called “Olympic Aid,” this group has attracted the support and participation of many famous athletes, including Clara Hughes, Jennifer Heil and Brad Gushue, but couldn’t satisfy the sponsors of VANOC 2010.

Celebrity athletes not only have the opportunity to profoundly affect children through personal contact, but also to shape government policy and national history. Didier Droga, Ivory Coast’s star football player, led his team to the 2006 World Cup finals is Germany and then spoke out against the violence that had plagued his country, begging warring factions to lay down their arms. This gesture has been credited with bringing opposing groups to the table and bringing about a ceasefire agreement. He was seen by the mass of the population to be an icon, but also one of them – and the politicians and military commanders took heed.

An interesting fair trade initiative designed for World Cup enthusiasts in the United Kingdom is the “A Sip for South Africa” campaign, in full swing now to take advantage of the British twin desire of watching championship football and downing a glass of wine. As the World Cup is being held in South Africa, the British Fairtrade Foundation is promoting South African fair trade certified wine brands.

While the World Cup is certainly a celebration of football and international sport, it is not yet a celebration of humanity at its best. One hopes that future decisions made by the Olympics, World Cup and other global-scale sports event organizations will take into account the needs of those who produce their equipment and the desire of athletes to make a difference in people’s lives. The momentum is now behind fair trade, so let’s get the ball rolling, FIFA!

Contact MCIC at (204) 987 6420 or for information on ordering fair trade soccer balls.


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This program was made possible with financial support of the Government of Manitoba,
and was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada (GAC)

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