Note: This commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.
The next time you are watching your kids play soccer, I would like you to think about some other kids, halfway around the world, and their soccer balls. Because unlike your children, for whom the ball is a symbol of childhood, for children in India the ball is often a symbol of stolen childhood.
Gurmeet Kumar is a 10-year-old boy living in one of India’s poorest areas. Earlier this year his baby brother got sick and needed medicine — medicine his poor mother couldn’t afford. So she borrowed the equivalent of less than $100 from a local soccer ball maker, using Gurmeet’s freedom as a kind of collateral.
Gurmeet, whose story was told on HBO’s Real Sports, works 10 to 15 hours a day stitching together soccer balls to pay off the debt, which he probably never will. The soccer ball makers charge “exorbitant” interest rates that double the size of the debt every few months. Barring the unforeseen, Gurmeet’s children and perhaps even their children will have to work off that debt.
By the way, Gurmeet’s baby brother died.
What some people call “debt bondage” — and what decent people call “slavery” — is an important part of how many of the world’s soccer balls are made. Many of the rest are made using child labor. Indian children, instead of going to school and playing, are paid five cents an hour to sow together the balls’ panels, including the one that tells buyers that the ball is “child labor free.”
The panel is there because this isn’t the first time that soccer balls were found to be made using child labor. In the 1990s, the child laborers were Pakistanis. The controversy caused sporting goods companies to adopt a code that banned the use of child labor and certified the moral bona fides of their products.
Oops! Industry representatives told HBO’s Bernard Goldberg that they didn’t know what was happening in India. Goldberg took their word for it, but pointed out that he and his crew, working without any help from Indian authorities, had no trouble finding many instances of child labor and “debt bondage.” It makes you wonder just how hard the companies really were looking.
Soccer balls are only one of many consumer goods being made by child labor. As the business magazine Forbes put it, “That garden stone, handmade carpet or embroidered T-shirt you just bought was probably made by child labor.”
Nonetheless, the only way sporting goods companies will live up to their promise is if we hit them where it hurts: their bottom line. Every soccer mom and dad should refuse to buy balls made by companies with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward child labor and “debt bondage.”
So please visit our website, BreakPoint.org, for more information on soccer balls and child labor.
In the meantime, we Christians should be setting the example — indeed, lead the way. The abolition of slavery and laws against child labor were largely the product of Christian efforts, and we should sustain those efforts.
William Wilberforce asked his fellow Britons to think of the slave as a “man and brother” — so I’m asking you to imagine your children robbed of their childhood, making balls they can only dream of playing with.