Brazuca, the official ball for Brazil World Cup 2014, has been co-produced in Pakistan’s city of Sialkot.
But the story of the football goes deeper and wider than the production line and the 1,400 staff that worked on it in Sialkot. It tells the tale of a historical town prospering under its skilled workers.
A town where women want to study and get jobs, where the art of hand-stitched footballs is still going strong and a town where child labour once threatened its fall from grace.
This is Sialkot and this is the story of the football.
GOING FROM FLAT SHEETS TO GRASSY FIELDS.
hen the World Cup kicks off on June 12, millions will be watching their favourite players in action.
However, almost 14,000km away, about 1,400 people will have their eyes glued not on the players but on the ball. Every goal will get a loud cheer but every minute the ball spends in the middle, the smile will only get wider on those 1,400 faces.
The ball in the middle would’ve gone through the hands of those 1,400 – the staff at Forward Sports, the factory in Sialkot (Pakistan) that has co-produced the footballs for Brazil 2014. The Brazuca is not hand-stitched and the order only arrived in Pakistan after China was unable to cope with the increase in demand. The stakeholders confirm that child labour was not used in the production of the ball.
Adidas is selling Brazuca for $160. Forward Sports wouldn’t disclose how much it cost them or the money they make on its production. Their average worker earns $100 a month. It’s a long route from the imported raw materials and relatively cheap labour to that $160 football.
BRAZUCA'S ARRIVAL IN PAKISTAN
Sialkot first produced a World Cup ball in 1982, when the balls were still hand-stitched. Brazil 2014, however, will see thermo-bonded footballs, the production of which started in China. Adidas, the company providing the World Cup footballs since 1970, did not have much time though when the decision to co-produce at another location was made.
“We were asked to do some work on this ball in the last week of August,” Khawaja Masood Akhtar, CEO of Forward Sports, told Al Jazeera.
“We managed to get the new machinery set up and running in just 33 days."
"The first shipment for Brazuca was made in November and the last one left our premises in April.”
The raw material – artificial leather – for Brazuca is imported.
It arrives at the factory in cut sheets, piled up in numbers as the 1,400 workers await their turn to do their part of the production. Nineteen processes and over 100 people later, the Brazuca – each ball using 0.25m² of raw material – gets packed in boxes that have had their cardboard strength and quality tested as well.
There is a huge number of female workers present on the production line (over 25% of Forward Sports’ staff is female). Some wear the face veil, others sport nail polish that matches the colour of their dress.
Twenty-five-year-old Lubna Shabbir wants to get a Master’s degree in history while Gulshan Ara, a divorcée, is content she is providing food for her five children. Both are happy at being employed and not having to rely on others for money.
Their work is monotonous and repetitive for the eight hours they spend in the factory six days a week. Some don’t know what a World Cup is, while others already have their eyes on Brazil lifting the trophy.
Forward Sports produces about 34,000 footballs per day during peak season. Every type of football they create goes through a rigorous testing process.
Brazuca’s testing process lasted two-and-a-half years and involved 600 players, including goal-keepers, defenders, midfielders and strikers to make sure that it works for all positions of the game. According to Adidas, another 280 players were interviewed to ensure adequate feedback.
At the entrance to their lab, Forward Sports lists 80 tests it can perform on footballs, ranging from UV light in extreme temperature for an extended duration or kicking it against studs continuously.
While equal emphasis is placed on every type of product and for every client they have, Brazuca’s presence in the centre circle on June 12 will add that something special for Akhtar and Sialkot.
“It was my dream to be making the ball for the World Cup,” he smiles as he looks into the camera, sharing his content through his eyes. “Every football manufacturer strives for this honour.”
“Finally, after years of dreaming and hard work, we have converted this into reality.”
Brazuca has attained the highest FIFA ratings for feel, durability and flight. No amount of pinching can wake Akhtar and his team from this dream.
AVERAGE WORKER'S MONTHLY SALARY
SIALKOT EXPORTS GOODS WORTH $1.6BN ANNUALLY
ialkot once produced more than 70% of the world’s footballs.
The production numbers have fallen slightly, partly because of China’s use of technology and undervalued currency, but Sialkot still is unarguably the sporting goods manufacturing hub of the world. The number of footballs still stands at a staggering 40 million annually (estimated minimum), the produced goods worth $210m (hand- and machine-stitched).
During the peak season – every World Cup year – the number exceeds 60 million, all produced by a workforce of around 60,000.
Sialkot is located in the northeast region of Punjab, the most populated province in Pakistan, and lies about 78 miles northwest of Lahore. After Karachi, this is Pakistan's second largest source of foreign exchange earnings through its exports and remittances from overseas.
More than 99% of goods manufactured in Sialkot are exported, worth $1.6bn annually.
A sea of motorcycles invades the city’s streets from dawn until late at night, with people frantically trying to get to work or just shop for their needs. Taxis are a luxury, so most visitors use motorcycle rickshaws as a cheap and quick method of transportation. Some streets are cobbled, others smoother than most found in bigger Pakistani metropolises.
Apart from footballs (which are now used in the World Cup, Champions League, European Championships as well as the German league) and other sporting goods, Sialkot is also renowned for manufacturing leather goods (jackets, gloves, handbags and wallets), surgical equipment, musical instruments and textiles.
The recorded history of the sporting goods manufacturing industry dates back to 1895, when Sialkot became famous for its tennis racquets. A decade later, cricket bats were crafted out of imported wood and exported to the world.
Now, the city is the third largest economic hub in Punjab after Lahore and Faisalabad. Sialkot and its surrounding areas employ over 200,000 skilled and unskilled workers, including women.
“Being a third-world country, achieving this sort of excellence is a matter of pride for Pakistan and Sialkot,” Sialkot Chamber of Commerce & Industry President Dr Sarfraz Bashir told Al Jazeera. “Sialkot produces 40-50 million footballs a year… maybe more. And work is being done at home too. The skilled workers get the panels and threads delivered at home and the footballs are picked up three days later. This supplements their main income and is very flexible.”
People in Sialkot generally look happy. Being a short drive from the Pakistan-India border bears no pain for them. Terrorism has not hit the city yet, and the people of Sialkot are thankful for that. Political strikes that shut down Karachi frequently have not found their way up north yet. It looks like a happy, happening place.
Sialkot’s per capita income is almost $2,800, the highest in the country, according to the government of Pakistan.
“On average, we look and feel happier than the rest of Pakistan,” Bashir added. “People here make enough money to live well. Almost all households have TV, fridge, motorcycles and cars. People get jobs here; they work, earn money for themselves and their families and are content with life.
“Even the average literacy rate here in Sialkot is better than the national figures.”
When the government refused to grant sufficient funds to Sialkot, the city’s businessmen and factory owners chipped in, improving the infrastructure: the roads, signs, drainage system and even building an international airport.
“The government kept on telling us for 30 years that they didn’t have the money to build an airport,” said Bashir. “Ultimately, in order to boost the city and its exports and tourism, 365 local businessmen formed a company, chipped in Rs 5,000,000 each ($50,000), bought around 2,000 acre of land, built the airport and are now running it effectively.”
In the near future, adds Bashir, you might see Sialkot’s local fruit and vegetables being sold in the Middle East.
GOODS' EXPORT VALUE
WORLD CUP YEARS
SIALKOT'S BATTLE AGAINST UNDER-AGE WORKERS
eventeen percent of Sialkot’s football manufacturing industry in 1997 comprised under-age labour, according to an International Labour Organization survey.
This was a booming industry, producing world-class goods for global clients. Other industries, too, were faced with similar issues – it was estimated that in the 1990s, one fourth of Pakistan’s workforce was made up of child labourers. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the meridian age of a child entering the workforce in 1996 was seven.
REASONS BEHIND CHILD LABOUR
While the preparation and finishing of footballs were done inside factory premises, the hand-stitching part was outsourced and thus vulnerable to child labour. Poverty was deemed one of the main reasons for children to be forced into work. However, Nasir Dogar, CEO of Independent Monitoring Association for Child Labor, thinks the reasons went beyond that.
“We’d normally say that children are involved because the families are poor and they can do with some extra income coming into the household,” Dogar told Al Jazeera in IMAC’s Sialkot office. “That is not the sole reason. We did a study in 1999 and found out that 78% of children working weren’t even contributing their income to the families. The remainder were sharing part of it.
“That showed that the families didn’t really need extra income to survive.”
Lack of quality education and limited white-collar opportunities meant that parents worried for their children’s future, according to Dogar, and thus wanted them to learn a skill. That, according to the survey, was the main reason behind children taking up work at a tender age.
The landscape has changed considerably now.
The entrance to Forward Sports, and various pillars inside the factory, bears signs refusing work to underage workers. Khawaja Masood Akhtar, CEO of the company, has a strict employment policy – no ID card, no job. Shops and small businesses in the market are aware of the strict vigilance and the need to play down any child’s involvement on their premises. Stitching centres ensure an adult-only workforce, with their suppliers and factory owners well aware of the consequences.
IMAC has 12 staff working in the field, ensuring that not only policies are adhered to by its members – random checks are undertaken – but also that a rehabilitation plan was in place as well.
When children were taken out of work because of the media limelight, 350 schools were set up where they were given basic education before being enrolled into formal education. According to Dogar, the programme helped more than 10,000 children with 60% of those taking up formal education.
“This programme has been very, very successful and there is virtually no child labour in the football manufacturing industry anymore,” Dogar added. “There could be sporadic instances buts if you were to probe those, you will realise that those are school-going kids and are stitching footballs on their day off.”
Child labour has by no means been wiped out completely.
Unfortunately, there is not much IMAC can do.
“IMAC is not a statutory body and we have no legal authority over anyone. It is only when they come to us and require our services then we get engaged.
“Apart from checks and vigilance, we’re also going out to communities and telling them why they shouldn’t involve children. We need to create awareness and educate them and that is what’s proving beneficial at times too.”
The football manufacturing industry may be clean, but children are still seen in the brickworks industry, selling fruit on the streets, driving motorcycle rickshaws and even in football shops in Sialkot.
Poverty and lack of quality education remain the primary reasons. The football manufacturers are worried about their clients’ global image, the other producers aren’t.
And with almost 18% of Pakistan living below the poverty line, according to the UNDP, an extra pair of hands are utilised to the full.
INCREASING FEMALE WORKFORCE WANTS TO BE COUNTED
% OF EMPLOYED WHO WORK IN AGRICULTURE
ulshan Ara is a divorcée and has five children to feed.
Up until recently, she was the only bread-earner in the house with the added responsibility of household chores and paying school and college fees for four of her children – the fifth, the only son, has recently started working.
Ara earns Rs 10,000 per month ($100), the minimum salary level set by the government and adhered to by Forward Sports. While she is unable to live a luxurious life, hampered by the expenses and rising inflation, she is content with just having a job, the satisfaction showing in her eyes and she speaks of the past.
“When my husband left me, I faced a very tough time and didn't have any money to buy food or clothes for my children,” Ara tells Al Jazeera before she explains the transformation.
“Ever since I've come here and started working, I've been able to provide for my children, for all their needs and have been able to give them good education. They're studying well in high school and college. I'm living a very happy life.
“I faced a lot of problems before but ever since I've started working here, I am happy that I am able to provide a fulfilling life to my children. That's my biggest happiness.”
About 27% of women in Pakistan are currently employed – 70% of those in the agriculture sector.
According to Ara, and the factory management, there has been a rise in the number of female workers in Sialkot with time. Cultural restrictions, household chores and lack of education and skill-set remained major factors in the low employment rates for females in Pakistan, especially in the rural areas.
Khawaja Masood, CEO Forward Sports, acknowledged that it was not easy driving in the female workers and changing the public’s mindset when it came to a working woman. But, he added, they are now the preferred gender due to their work ethics and dedication.
“You need to give female workers the respect which is mandatory,” Masood said. “Then you need to create a very humble environment for them while also respecting their culture and decisions. If they want to cover their face, you let them.”
While there is a need for an extra income in the house, Ara wants her children to get decent education before taking up work. She has faced tough times in her life – as she pauses while remembering those days – and is adamant not to provide as much as she can for her children.
“Education is very important if they want to do well in life and succeed. There's no life for an uneducated person. In this age of computer and technology, they need to study well to keep up with the latest trends. I will try and help them study until the Masters level. They tell me to stop working and say that they can stop studying now and start working here but I tell them to continue with their studies.
“I want them to have enough education in order to live their lives according to the times we live in. Being a doctor or engineer, those professions are for rich people's children but I want my children to have enough knowledge to give them the best life possible in their future. I have taught as well when I was living in a village. I got that job because of my education, didn't I? So I want the same for my children. But they will only be able to stand on their feet if they study well.”
OPPOSITION TO WOMEN WORKING
In previous years, there has been opposition to women leaving their house for work, especially in villages and rural areas. However, the trends seem to have changed. Everyone we spoke to, including Ara, has had no issues from family or fellow villagers. In fact, most have lauded her decision.
“My relatives and the people in the area supported my decision and said it was the best for me that I was earning for my children and providing for them.
“When a person is doing well, everyone wants to be around them. When you are not doing well, people run away from you thinking you will ask them for money or help. Why would people have any problems with me now? I am earning and providing for my family on my own. I am at the same level as them now.”
Pakistan's football team, ranked 159th, is not part of Brazil 2014 and it has never qualified for a football World Cup. The craze on the streets is seasonal, reaching its peak every four years. Ara, who says she will be watching the World Cup on her days off, is not a big football fan but Brazuca’s presence on the field will remain a memory she will cherish forever.
“We feel very happy and proud. We say that the ball from our factory - we don't say the owner's factory, it’s ours - is going to be used for the World Cup. This is our work, our ball. It will make Pakistan proud, it will make me proud and make our company proud.”
ubna Shabbir has her eyes set on obtaining a Master's degree in history.
She works full-time at Forward Sports, earning $100 a month, but isn’t content with her Bachelors degree.
“I want to study more,” Lubna told Al Jazeera with a wide smile on her face. “I want to do a Masters in history because I want to know more about how we got to the place we’re at and to gain more knowledge. I work here for eight hours and have plenty of time to study after that.”
The 25-year-old Lubna is happy to be working and contributing to the household – her father works too and earns around $150 per month. She’s the first girl in her family to take up work – her aim was to be a ‘helping hand’ to her father – while also enabling her younger siblings to get decent education.
“I’m very happy to be working. I don’t want to be a burden on anyone. I want to the self-sufficient and not at anyone else’s mercy. I will be continuing my studies and helping my parents at the same time.
“People say girls lack skills and can’t compete with boys. I, and the other female workers here, am proving them wrong. Girls aren’t any less than boys. I want girls to be self-sufficient.”
Lubna’s efforts – getting up early in the morning in order to reach work by 7.30am, studying and working simultaneously and bringing home a useful income – has given cue to others in the area to follow suit. There has been an increase in the number of women taking up work from her area, an act the village people have lauded and backed.
Lubna has been a long-time football fan, watching kids play on the street. However, creating a football for the World Cup by her own hands was something she had never imagined doing.
“When I used to watch football on TV, I never thought that one day I would be making those footballs here. I have this sense of accomplishment and this happiness that footballs we make are being used on international level.”
THE ART IS DEFYING TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES
p until a few years ago, Sialkot used to produce as many as 60 million hand-stitched footballs every World Cup year.
Now, while Forward Sports makes up to 34,000 footballs a day – machine and hand-stitched – Sialkot's share on the global scale has gone down. China has taken giant strides towards securing the lead via its machine-stitching emphasis enabling it to produce more, and cheaply.
STITCHING UP A LIVELIHOOD
Less than 20km away from Forward Sport, in a small village called Libbey, a stitching centre has been going strong for more than 50 years.
Employing more than 100 people – with extra balls being stitched at home by workers’ families – the centre can produce 2,500 footballs a day. Some, like Iqbal Maseeh, have been working here for almost 10 years. Others, like Manshad Ahmed, are relatively new, having spent just over two years.
Twenty-year-old Amanat Ali is an accountant at this stitching centre which is owned by his brother-in-law. Alitra, the factory for which this centre stitches footballs, is located in Sialkot and all of the production is exported – mostly to Dubai, Saudi Arabia or Canada and Europe, according to Ali.
“The factory sends its driver who delivers the panels and tells us when they’re to be completed by,” Ali told Al Jazeera as he looks after the centre because his brother-in-law had to rush to Lahore. “We only make hand-stitched footballs. We've heard that machine-stitched balls don't last too long. It tears apart soon. Hand-stitched balls last longer.”
Demand is increasing and they’re on the lookout for more people as most of the current staff is busy with wheat crop. The existing staff manages its own timetable, coming and going as they please while recording the number of footballs made.
“The man sitting behind the door has already stitched five balls.”
“He will come back tomorrow morning at 5am. He will get done by 2pm and go home.”
It takes 40-50 minutes to stitch a football. Maseeh, working his fingers like a machine, with his eyes fixed on what others are doing, does it in 30 (with regular cigarette breaks).
Their work doesn’t stop at the centre.
“Once they are done here, the workers will take a few balls and will stitch them at home,” Ali added. “Their wives can help them out as well. In peak times, we even send the panels and thread to their houses.”
“He will stitch two more in an hour and then he'll go back to his village and work with his cattle.”
WORKER AT A STITCHING CENTER
How old are you?
How long have you been working here?
It's been nearly 10 years.
How many balls do you stitch in a day?
How many balls would you stitch when you started?
How did you learn this?
Learned it at home from my brother.
How did you start?
I started learning as a kid and then picked up.
What time do you get here in the morning?
How many hours do you work?
Do you take a day off or work seven days a week?
No day off.
Are you the only one working in your house?
You spend 8-9 hours a day here and earn Rs100 per ball. Is that enough for your family?
The hours are long and work is very difficult but what can we do. We're helpless. We have to do this work and earn our livelihood to keep up with the rising inflation.
Do your kids work?
No, they’re small.
Do you want them to learn stitching?
No, I don't want teach them this work.
There's not much benefit of learning this work. It requires a lot of strength. I'll do it for a while and then leave it. I've become weak. This requires a lot of physical strength and I can't do it for much longer now. I'm coming here regularly now but it's becoming difficult.
Do you have any other source of livelihood?
Just this right now. I'll look for some work that can be done easily and leave this.
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