Ten years after the signing of the Atlanta Partnership on child labour, what will it take to finally eliminate the practice in the manufacture of footballs? Doug Cahn examines the issues
The Nike public relations juggernaut delivered a press release in the autumn with major news.
But instead of declaring an innovation in sport shoe performance, the latest sports icon to wear Nike products, or the company’s quarterly earnings, Nike announced that it had ceased doing business with a football manufacturer.
Nike explained that it had exhausted all efforts to get Saga Sports, Pakistan’s largest football factory, to comply with its strict workplace requirements including its ban on the use of child labour. The factory, along with its workforce, would have to go.
Only a decade earlier, Nike and other global brands, along with the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry, hailed the Atlanta Partnership as the beginning of the end of child labour in and around the industrial town of Sialkot, the football manufacturing capital of Pakistan.
The agreement, named after the city in which it was signed, was the first multi-stakeholder initiative of its kind, bringing together the International Labour Organisation, the Pakistan business community, Unicef and global brands to eliminate child labour.
Under the agreement, the factories would have to submit to independent monitoring. Unicef and local non-profit groups would work with villages that had supplied the child stitchers to ease their transition from work to school and to help families recoup their lost income.
This innovative solution to a vexing problem was not easy to reach. Ball manufacturers first denied that children were used to stitch the balls, claiming that their hands were too weak to pull the needle and thread through the laminated, polyvinyl panels of the intricate ball designs.
A barrage of damning media reports in 1995 and 1996 and then a credible report commissioned by an industry task force at Reebok’s urging shortly thereafter proved the hubris of that defence.
The eventual agreement was a major step forward in achieving respect of basic human rights of children. Importantly, a new model for addressing complex social ills had been born.
Failing to deliver
So what are we to make of the fact that nearly a decade after this landmark collaboration was birthed, Saga Sports has been dropped by a major global brand? Activists in Pakistan have long warned of a resurgence of child labour, pushed into ever more remote villages surrounding Sialkot to avoid inspectors.
In many cases, child labourers simply migrated to the nearby surgical instrument manufacturers. Saga Sports may have been the focus of recent scrutiny but surely it is not alone in its reluctance to shun inexpensive and plentiful child labour.
Knowing now what many of us feared, is it fair to conclude that the Atlanta Partnership failed to deliver on its promise? In part, the answer must be yes. But rather than declare the Atlanta Partnership null and void, the parties to the agreement should examine in detail what went wrong and resolve to strengthen it. In so doing, the parties should take into account four key failings of the original agreement.
The original focus was on child labour alone. Today we know that a range of issues – from protecting the right to freedom of association to safety in the workplace – are at risk. A broader set of issues, identified through a root cause analysis, will better align the Pakistani manufacturing industry to the change that is necessary in order to sustain businesses where workers are treated in accordance with internationally recognised labour standards.
No lasting solution can focus on the football sector alone. A revitalised agreement must reach out to other businesses such as the surgical instruments sector so that a uniform standard of behaviour can be established across the region, eliminating the migration of child labour from one kind of factory to another.
A much more robust programme of social investment is necessary in order to offset the loss of family income from child labour and to underscore the value of education. Economic opportunities in the region must be expanded.
Finally, the quality of the monitoring has been inadequate and must be improved. Better, more sophisticated methods of assessing the adequacy of any future initiative will be necessary. This will be no easy task given the many hundreds of villages surrounding Sialkot.
The best kind of monitoring will come from community or worker representatives themselves. A shift in attitudes that comes from broad-based support for the elimination of child labour throughout the region is necessary.
The achievement of the Atlanta Partnership was indeed an historic moment. What we know now is how limited that achievement was.
The stakes are high. The ability of the Atlanta Partnership to succeed in the face of today’s known failures will inform a range of other experimental yet innovative partnerships to address difficult social issues in developing countries. A reinvigorated multi-stakeholder initiative that will result in sustainable improvements in labour practice in Pakistan, including the elimination of child labour, is now overdue.
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