A worker puts the Brazuca through final tests after production
Despite Pakistan’s success at the recent Street Child World Cup in Brazil, it is a well-understood fact that Pakistan’s representation at the FIFA mega event remains a distant dream. Workers at a well-built factory on the outskirts of Sialkot may, however, disagree. After all, the fruit of their labour will be the most-sought after item at the World Cup … the ball itself.
The Brazuca, as it has been officially named, has been manufactured in Pakistan and China for the official ball sponsor Adidas. At the smaller of the two neighbouring nations, the World Cup ball was churned out in the hundreds of thousands at Forward Sports, one of the official manufacturers of Adidas products in Pakistan.
While this is not the first time that Pakistan is exporting the World Cup ball, it has taken the country more than a decade to return to the prestigious sporting event as a match ball supplier.
Hand-stitched footballs are produced in thousands on a daily basis at several hundred stitching centres across the district
Images on Sunday travelled to the town of the national poet to take a peek at Pakistan’s flag-carrier being prepared, packaged and sent off to Brazil, and to see how the resilient industrialists and workers brought the export hub back on the international grid.
When the titans of world football face off in Brazil, a little part of Pakistan will be there with them
“When we were offered the opportunity to produce the World Cup football, we were given less than two months to go from zero to Brazuca,” says Forward’s CEO Khawaja Masood Akhtar.
While they were already manufacturing match balls for the world’s top football leagues, including the German Bundesliga, French Ligue 1 and the Uefa Champions League, making the World Cup ball was a different challenge altogether. With just a peripheral idea of the technology and equipment needed to make the ball, Akhtar’s team began the process of consulting experts.
According to Akhtar, his company had to redesign their production line in order to meet the standards set for the world’s most prized match ball. They eventually managed to find engineers (hardware and software) that put together the production and testing equipment in a matter of seven weeks. “All of our equipment and software was built by local engineers,” the middle-aged businessman boasts with pride.
For Sialkot, however, it was more than a decade-long wait before pride returned to its sports good industry and specifically, the football-manufacturing sector. Technological shortcomings, increasing competition and the stigma of child labour struck devastating blows to the city that was once catering to 75 per cent of the world’s demand for footballs.
Nasir Dogar, who heads the Independent Monitoring Association for Child Labour (Imac), explains how the north-eastern export hub of Pakistan suddenly became synonymous with child labour in the global market.
Sialkot’s sports industry employs a large number of women, especially due to their diligence and dedication towards their work.
“After the 1994 World Cup, there was immense pressure from the international soccer ball industry concerning the involvement of children in the production process and it snowballed into a situation where there was a threat that international buyers would stop buying balls from Pakistan
”Businessmen, most of whom were supplying hand-stitched balls, scrambled to address the issue that was a major contributing factor for the shutdown of Nike’s manufacturing partner and Sialkot’s then biggest sports goods supplier, Saga Sports.
Saga’s demise had a far-reaching effect on not just one city. Sialkot’s football-manufacturing exploits stretched into surrounding towns, villages and even spilled over into neighbouring districts such as Gujrat and Narowal.
The manufacturing giant had developed stitching centres, smaller factories and even purpose-built utility stores to facilitate its employees. Working for Saga was all the rage in Sialkot during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Then, with the death of its visionary owner — which led to family politics plaguing the company — and factors such as China’s rapid progress in the industry, the need for technological advancement and most tellingly, media highlight on child labour brought Sialkot’s prized employer’s downfall.
It led to a realisation that child labour was a menace that had to be dealt with if Sialkot wanted to retain its status as an export hub. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), Unicef, the Government of Pakistan and the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) came together to sign an agreement, which outlined the path to child-labour-free employment in Sialkot district.
A few years after running the programme, ILO and Unicef handed over the monitoring work to a purpose-built body, which now runs as Imac. According to its chief, Imac carries out exhaustive raids, checks and research in factories and their stitching centres where hand-stitching work is outsourced. It then puts the information together to evaluate the manufacturer’s standing in terms of child-labour laws and issues certificates accordingly.
During its early years, Imac’s research revealed that child labour was prevalent not so much due to the family’s economic conditions as it was due to the parents’ fear for the future. “We found out that parents wanted to teach their children stitching footballs as a means of securing their future with a well-paying skill, as opposed to educating them and leaving them jobless in the white-collar market,” says Dogar.
While the approach towards education has changed a great deal, football-stitching still remains a favoured profession in the rural suburbs of Sialkot. A visit to one of the several hundred stitching centres spread across small towns and villages revealed that young men and women still value the football-stitching industry.
Stitching together 32 hexagons of artificial leather in about an hour is no mean feat but it is viewed as a convenient means of earning an income in addition to the ususl agricultural activities.
Here, women put together panels for the Brazuca
Workers throng the centres — most of which are open from sunrise until sunset — to stitch a minimum of five balls a day for Rs100 apiece. Even when they leave the centre, workers take the raw material home, where other men and women of the household sit down and stitch a handful of balls every evening.
Women’s contribution, however, is not limited to their homes or stitching centres set up in their towns. Gulshan Ara, for example, is one of the thousands of women employed by sports-goods manufacturers in and around Sialkot.
When Gulshan’s husband left her a few years ago, she had little money to bring up her five kids and that is when she signed up for a job at Forward Sports. “Ever since I joined (the factory), I have been able to provide for my children’s needs and give them good education,” she says.
With a salary of Rs10,000 per month, medical cover and life insurance policy Gulshan has no plans of leaving the factory after having spent five years there.
“This job gives me a sense of pride and self-empowerment that I never felt before so I will continue working here for as long as I physically can,” asserts Gulshan.
Her sense of pride, however, is not limited to providing for her family. Chuckling, Gulshan admits that along with her family, she will be among the billions of viewers expected to watch the tournament in Brazil.
“I will be happy to see the ball I helped put together with my own hands being used at the World Cup. It will make me proud. It will make Pakistan proud. That is what I tell my family and my community. This is our work. Our ball.”