Who made your football?

Because the joy and competition of play your own child experiences, shouldn’t be at the expense of another

May 07, 2018 12:34 pm | Updated May 09, 2018 04:08 pm IST

Last week, as the world asked #WhoMadeMyClothes, supported by Fashion Revolution, a non-profit that works towards more sustainable garment-making practices, we asked kids and parents if they knew who made their footballs. Turns out they didn’t.

When someone says footballs are completely handmade, you can’t really imagine it, until you see the process, and realise that it’s really a craft, and every ball is touched by upto 10 people before you get to dribble one around a field. Jalandhar in Punjab and Meerut in Uttar Pradesh produce 75-80% of all the balls in India, according to the International Labor Rights Forum. Because it is labour-intensive, and it was believed stitching was best done with nimble hands, the industry has seen child labour and poor working conditions in the past, especially in the 1990s, with the biggest brands (Nike, Adidas, FIFA, Sherrin, Canterbury, Manchester United) all being tainted with allegations.

Things have changed, and the All India Football Federation uses balls only from FIFA-approved sports goods manufacturing companies that today have checks to make sure there’s no child labour, says Kushal Das, General Secretary. Shaji Prabhakaran, a FIFA scout says it’s not just about labour, but also about knowing where the materials come from. Legend International, in Jalandhar, though, made a conscious decision to go a step further: the Fairtrade way. The company produces five types of footballs for different levels of play.

“I heard about Fairtrade two years ago from a client. I went online and saw that Pakistani businesses already had this certification, and read about how the workers were benefited from it,” says Anuj Pasricha, who founded the company in 1994. The India Brand Equity Foundation says the industry employs over five lakh people, and this is where Fairtrade comes in.

“Only when you meet people and see the possibilities, does your own awareness grow, and you realise your own standards need improvement,” he says, candidly, of the company that mainly exports its gear. Pasricha talks of the beginning of the business, when he was getting samples ready. “I would sit in workers’ houses watching them stitch footballs, drinking tea with them, for two or three hours (the time it takes to stitch a ball). When we go to a mall, we don’t see the conditions of the people making it, or value their hard work; we only see the sheen,” he says.

So Legend took over a year, combed through a 400-page manual, updated its factory conditions to comply with Fairtrade norms, at the outlay of ₹20 lakh and opened its premises to inspection.

Stitching traditionally takes place in homes, and this had to be shifted to the factory, to ensure that only adults and not children were doing the work (about four-five footballs or 12-14 rugby balls can be stitched in a day, since there are fewer panels). Things like first-aid boxes, drinking water points, regular doctor check-ups, fire-protection and escape systems, a designated lunch area, tea and snacks, masks-gloves-aprons-shoes and education on why these were important, all had to be put in place. “It’s a process; there’s still a lot to be done,” he says.

The Fairtrade pricing stipulates that 10% of the price the company recieves on the ball goes to a worker’s welfare fund (a separate account audited by Fairtrade). A committee is formed from amongst the workers and they decide how they’d like to use the money. There is another 5% that goes to a sustainability fund (a compliance cost, only in the case of ball manufacturing). This year, at Legend, the 42 workers, out of which nine people are on the committee (with two women) is debating between additional water filters and an air purification or cooling system.

“But the wheel has to be kept moving,” says Pasricha, meaning that more orders are needed, both to be able to afford to get recertified and for the worker benefit. Initial certification costs about ₹2 lakh, with subsequent yearly recertification costing approximately ₹1 lakh. All of this pushes up the cost of a football by 15-20%.

Not everyone is a fan though. Anthropologist Prof Shiv Visvanathan, Vice Dean at the OP Jindal Global University, says it’s exemplar, “but unfortunately, exemplars don’t work in informal economies,” craft economies, unlike industrial ones. He’d like a larger debate on what organisations like Fairtrade bring, besides creating subcultures that are not the norm. The point, he says, is not to question the motivation, but to see how far they can spread. “Rights and justice for all only come when things spread.”

Pasricha feels that while Fairtrade is helping market the balls, more can be done to push the cause, creating a little more awareness about its benefits at the grassroot level. “If you see two balls in a shop, one ₹500 and the other ₹600, and they’re absolutely the same product, except that the more expensive one is Fairtrade, tell me, which will you buy, as a customer?” he asks, rhetorically. Right now, besides the Indian market (under the brand name Indpro, ₹469 upwards), the company supplies to Bala, in Scotland.

India has 164 manufacturers and 94 producers (from farming and allied sectors) that are Fairtrade-certified. Worldwide, there is a thousands -strong network, which Abhishek Jani, CEO, Fairtrade India, says they tap into. He says while laws are in place in India, Fairtrade adds another layer of checks and education, for both management and workers. He admits that “We need to create a Fairtrade marketplace,” meaning that this education has to be extended to the layperson who is eventually going out to buy that football. It’s only then that a parent will pause a minute to think about the fingers that stitched that football, and pay that little extra.

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