Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 9 (Summer 1997): Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia: Articles: Human Rights, Soccer Balls, and Better Business Practices

Jun 5, 1997

Reebok, a major sporting-goods company famous for its footwear, recently entered the global soccer ball market. And nowhere has Reebok’s need to reshape its business relationships with independent overseas suppliers been greater than in the bustling industrial town of Sialkot, Pakistan, where the vast majority of quality soccer balls are manufactured. Since first learning three years ago that up to 20 percent of soccer ball stitchers in Pakistan may be children, Reebok has sought a solution that reflects its long-standing commitment to human rights and its own human rights standards.

The Reebok Human Rights Production Standards bar the use of child labor and compulsory labor, such as forced prison labor. They state that no one making Reebok products should be discriminated against or forced to work excessive overtime without compensation. The standards were drafted in 1992 with the covenants of the International Labor Organization in mind; they call for fair compensation, freedom of association, and a safe and healthy work environment. Reebok applies its standards in selecting and maintaining business partners and implements them through an extensive program of education, training, and internal and external audits.

To meet the soccer ball stitchers problem head on, Reebok worked with colleagues at the Soccer Industry Council of America to establish the Task Force on Global Manufacturing Practices, which developed industry recommendations on child labor. In June 1996, Reebok announced a program to ensure that its soccer balls produced in Pakistan would not be stitched by children. The program contains three elements: all production, including stitching, must take place inside a new facility in which all work on Reebok balls is performed by workers at least fifteen years old, the legal working age in Pakistan; external monitoring ensures that children under fifteen are not entering the workplace and that soccer ball panels are not leaving the factory to be stitched by children in clandestine stitching centers or in homes; and support for educational or vocational training will be provided for children in the soccer ball manufacturing region of Pakistan.

A new, state-of-the-art factory, constructed and operated by Moltex Sporting Goods (PVT) Ltd., the Pakistani soccer ball manufacturing company to which Reebok awarded its exclusive contract, is now operating in Sialkot. The monitoring system includes two local human rights activists and an accounting firm that will audit factory records. The activists, hired by Reebok and recommended by local human rights NGOs, will interview workers and work to maintain ties between the factory and the local community. They have the right to inspect the factory unannounced. In addition, the new factory in Sialkot includes a room in which continuing education and vocational training for adult employees will be available.

The final element in Reebok’s program, the Pakistan Education Project, is in the planning and implementation stage. The first step was to design a three-year plan to improve educational opportunities for children in villages surrounding Sialkot, specifically targeting displaced child workers. With the feasibility study now complete, Reebok is working with the Society for the Advancement of Education, a Sialkot-based educational NGO, to implement the program. The group identified as the most vulnerable are middle-school children, ages ten to fourteen, and they will become the target group for the education project.

Reebok faced a number of difficulties in implementing its new business strategy in Sialkot. Many stitchers did not want to leave their villages to work in the new factory. Also, local attitudes about the use of children to stitch balls differed significantly from those held in Western consumer markets. Many adults interviewed preferred to have children stitch soccer balls rather than attend inadequate schools or have hazardous or more exploitative jobs, for example working in brick kilns, leather tanneries, or surgical instruments factories. Not insignificantly, costs related to bringing ball stitching in-house have had a major impact on Reebok’s profit margins. Nonetheless, with the collaboration, support, and encouragement of many human rights and development organizations around the world, we will face the challenges ahead with the conviction and dedication that have guided us in the past.

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