Sherrin's child labourers abandoned

The child labourers previously employed to stitch Sherrin footballs have been abandoned by the company, and their families left with no compensation and no source of income, critics of Sherrin's sudden pull-out say.

Since Wednesday, Sherrin has not allowed any ball-stitching work to be subcontracted out of its supplier Spartan's factory, in the Indian Punjab city of Jalandhar, after it was revealed the company was using child labour to stitch junior Auskick and corporate promotional balls.

The Age revealed last Saturday that children as young as 10, and almost always girls, were being pulled out of school and put to work, stitching Sherrin balls for as many as 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

Stitching a junior Auskick ball, or a promotional ball for the North Melbourne Grand Final breakfast, took a child more than an hour and earned them seven Rupees, or about 12 cents.

Every child stitcher The Age spoke to also had at least one parent who worked stitching the same balls. In most homes, ball stitching was the family's only source of income.

Children will no longer work on Sherrin balls, the company has promised. No balls will be stitched outside the walls of Spartan's factory. But Sherrin has offered no alternative for the families of those child workers, welfare activists and unions say, accusing the company of simply abandoning those communities for public relations benefit.

They argue that withdrawing the families' only source of income, without offering a replacement, will leave them even worse off than before.

Daniel Mackey of Fair Trade Australia said it was the "worst thing" that could happen for stitching work to be simply taken from families who had become dependent on it.

Instead, he said, the adults in those households should be paid better wages so that their children weren't compelled to work and would instead go to school.

"We see this as a missed opportunity to work with the suppliers to ensure that fair and equitable working conditions are established for the parents of these children, thus helping to remove the conditions that allow child labour to persist."

Campaign director for the International Trade Union Confederation Tim Noonan said the AFL and Sherrin should not have "cut and run" from vulnerable workers.

"What the AFL has done is deal with a short-term public relations problem rather than take responsibility for Sherrin's production chain," Mr Noonan said.

"Walking away from the contractor when a negative story breaks is easy for major sports and brands but all that does is leave the workers they say they care about out of a job."

The sub-contractor, whom The Age understands Sherrin has blamed for all of its child labour, said while he knew child labour was banned, it was an accepted, even necessary practice, and common amongst other contractors.

"Out here, in the houses, children are working, if they want to help out their family, they can," Rajkumar, who gave only his first name, told The Age in Jalandhar.

Rajkumar said his production line was a "spillover" operation for when Sherrin's manufacturer, Spartan, was too busy at its main factory in Jalandhar.

"They are always busy," he said.

Pictures of Rajkumar's "factory" — he would not allow his face to be photographed — show thousands of pre-cut Sherrin panels stacked across the floor of his two-room operation.

From here the panels were distributed, along with needles, wax, and thread, to homes in neighbouring slums, where the balls would be stitched by women and children.

Hundreds of finished "stitched" balls were strewn across tables and the floor at Rajkumar's premises, waiting to be returned to the factory.

Rajkumar warned public attention on the issue of child labour would cause brands to simply pull out of the market, and that they would leave nothing behind.

"You will affect the families, which completely depend on football stitching. You are snatching their livelihood."

While Sherrin says the use of child labour making its footballs was the work of one rogue contractor, The Age's 12-month investigation found that the use of child labour in the sports-ball industry in India was widespread and systemic.

The Age found child stitchers, as young as seven, in both the cities of Jalandhar and Meerut, stitching not only Sherrins, but other international sports brands such as Canterbury, and balls for India's domestic market.

The story Sherrin's child labourers abandoned first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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