In the lead-up to Saturday’s Grand Final The Age/Herald broke the story of child labour in Sherrin’s supply chain. Child labour is rife in the manufacture of sporting goods in the developing world and over the years Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Puma and many others have faced scandals and allegations. Sherrin’s response has been swift and dramatic. The company cut ties with all its Indian subcontractors and hastily pulled the promotional footballs intended to be handed out at the $350-a-ticket North Melbourne Grand Final Breakfast. It has since recalled half a million Auskick footballs after a needle was found in a ball, potentially stitched by child labourer. AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou slammed the use of child labour as ‘disgusting’ and the AFL has issued Sherrin with a breach of agreement notice.
It is understandable that child labour evokes this emotive response. No one likes to consider that the football they kick around the backyard with their kid was hand-stitched by an impoverished child on the other side of the world. But Sherrin and the AFL’s swift and damning responses reek of PR and demonstrate a, perhaps willful, lack of understanding of the complex issues surrounding child labour.
Sherrin’s parent company, Russell Corporation, has expressed that it is ‘extremely grateful’ this breach has been brought to its attention. Yet whilst Sherrin may have been unaware that children were manufacturing its products, unless Spartan, the Indian company charged with producing the footballs, was actively concealing its subcontracting it is difficult to believe that Sherrin could not have entertained this possibility. Child labour is widespread in the manufacturing and agricultural industries throughout the developing world. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, estimates that 12 per cent of Indian children between the ages of 5 and 14 are engaged in child labour. It is also common for parts of the manufacturing supply chain to be subcontracted out to private households, which is what Spartan was doing in ‘busy’ periods. If Sherrin had not entertained the possibility that this was occurring it was certainly turning a blind eye.
To those in the developed world a ten-year-old child hand-stitching footballs for twelve cents an hour is nothing more than extreme exploitation. Yet child labour is a complex and nuanced issue. Many organisations and activists fighting against child labour differentiate between child labour/work, and exploitation and recognise that childrens’ wages are often integral to the survival of the world’s poorest households. Parents face a difficult cost-benefit decision on whether their children should work, and whether they should work instead of going to school. This is why girls make up the majority of child labourers; boys and boys’ education are often more highly valued, so girls are the first to be pulled out of school.
What happens once Sherrin pulls the plug on these subcontractors? Do we expect these children, mainly girls, to pack up their sewing kits and hop off to school? The reality is grim. As The Age/Herald reported, many of the households stitching Sherrin footballs live on less than one US dollar a day. They generally have no savings and no access to credit. As the supply of Sherrin footballs abruptly grinds to a halt, these families will scramble to find similar work from a different yet similar company. In the interim period many families will suffer from increased financial hardship. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Sherrin’s actions will do more harm than good.
So what can and should be done? Sherrin is donating the profits from its Auskick footballs involved in the scandal to World Vision and Manav Sehyog Society, a local non-governmental organisation in Jalandhar, the area Sherrin previously, unknowingly, subcontracted to. Putting money into the local area is a laudable recognition of the economic and social factors which facilitate child labour. But Sherrin can, and is taking more direct action, announcing that it will offer better-paying factory employment to the parents of all the child labourers which will hopefully significantly reduce the households’ financial stress and eliminate the need for children to work, or work such long hours.
This feel-good ending is the result of media and public pressure and Sherrin has, to their credit, tried hard to make amends. Of course, Sherrin is at risk of losing its contact with the AFL and permanently damaging its reputation; PR is the end goal. It would be nice if companies took steps to address child labour before they were caught out, but perhaps rigorous monitoring is the most practical approach.
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