In this mixed-team tournament, members of the Vancouver Street Soccer League (VSSL) and a Vancouver Whitecaps supporter group, the Southsiders, have met up to share equipment, a meal, and a day of soccer. The VSSL comprises players from all avenues of life and features several teams based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood often noted for high incidences of poverty, drug use, and other social issues. “Everyone can unite behind soccer,” says VSSL’s director of communications, Kurt Heinrich, describing how players have overcome “serious challenges in their lives” to find fitness and friendship through the beautiful game.

But the upside of this tournament doesn’t end at the sidewalk bordering Andy Livingstone Park. Hand-stitched in Pakistan, the league’s Fairtrade certified soccer balls are helping to change lives in communities thousands of kilometres away.

Sialkot, Pakistan, is home to more than 250 sports ball manufacturers, including 13 Fairtrade certified. Although estimates on the number of soccer balls produced vary, from 20 million to 60 million per year, Sialkot is the global leader in hand-stitched soccer ball production. The industry’s origins trace to 1922, when Sialkot-resident Sayed Sahib capitalized on British Army officers’ fondness for locally made soccer balls. Decades ensued; Sialkot’s reputation for making high-quality, durable balls grew, reaching its zenith in the 1980s with Adidas sourcing its iconic Tango ball from Pakistani producers.

Today, with the rise of machine-stitched and thermally bonded balls, China has eclipsed Pakistan by nearly threefold in the global marketplace. Yet leading brands including Adidas, Nike, Puma, and Reebok continue to export balls from Sialkot-based suppliers. Hand-stitched balls are superior in quality to machine-made balls, and are less costly to produce than thermally bonded balls.

While his entrepreneurial spirit endures, Sahib would be amazed by today’s materials and manufacturing techniques. Leather has been swapped for waterproof and durable synthetics. The panels are punched, screened, and laminated at the factory, and then shipped with the bladder and other necessities to workers based either at home or at a stitching centre. The stitchers wax and harden the thread and assemble two separate halves. They then join the halves, being careful not to puncture the inserted bladder as they finish the final stitches blind.

Stitching is tedious, detailed work, and many home-based workers have no choice but to work in cramped, poorly lit quarters with limited fresh air and insufficient daylight. Stiff thread slices fingers. Hands cramp. Needles jab. Wounds fester. Back pain, neck pain, and loss of eyesight can be the results of hours spent hunched over. In time, hand cramps can turn into permanent deformities. The pressure is to produce. Stitchers are often paid by the ball, which means every mistake comes from their bottom line. Without proper standards, earnings can fall below minimum wage requirements.

Historically, child labour has been the prominent issue surrounding soccer ball production in Pakistan. Since the late 1990s, when the problem first received public attention, FIFA and major soccer ball brands have ostensibly committed to eradicating child labour in every stage of production. Under the auspices of the International Labour Organization and UNICEF, the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry signed the Atlanta Agreement in 1997. This pact formalized the industry’s commitment to eliminate child labour in Sialkot and eventually spawned the Independent Monitoring Association for Child Labour (IMAC). Producers in the region also agreed to move stitching away from homes and into monitored stitching centres.

These efforts, while not perfect, have seen Pakistan make strides in eliminating child labour. But the industry’s tiered manufacturing process and dependence on subcontractors allows the issue to linger. Cornered by low wages and piecemeal pay, parents still include their children in stitching work. And while IMAC monitors factories and stitching centres, keeping tabs on home-based stitchers is next to impossible.

Outside of Pakistan, none of the major soccer ball–producing nations has participated in a multi-stakeholder commitment like the Atlanta Agreement. Accountability to ensure proper wages and labour conditions is also rare. A 2010 International Labour Rights Forum report describes child labour in India’s soccer ball industry, wage inequality in Thailand’s, and deceptive reporting practices and unreasonable working hours—imagine 21-hour days for a month straight—in China’s.

FIFA’s stand against labour injustice presents itself, according to its website, as a partnership with the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI) that upholds globally recognized labour and environmental principles among FIFA-licensed producers. Labelling balls as FIFA Approved and FIFA Inspected, FIFA communicates quality and assures corporate social responsibility. FIFA says that it will revoke licenses from producers who fail to adopt the WFSGI Code of Conduct, but the Code itself merely “encourages” manufacturers to adopt third-party monitoring.

One of the strengths of the Fairtrade system is that it requires consistent monitoring and detailed records keeping, including the registration of all subcontractors. To back this up, FLO-Cert (Fairtrade International’s certifying body) has the power to audit inspection reports and employee records, and to penalize offending producers. “That is one of the reasons I subscribe to the Fairtrade model,” says James Milligan, founder of Social Conscience Fair Trade Sports Balls. “I’m one guy. What am I going to do? Go over there and check it out all the time?” The Fairtrade standard doesn’t allow for home-based stitching and is revised regularly, eliminating potential loopholes.

In addition to safe working conditions and fair wages, workers at Fairtrade certified factories and stitching centres receive a Fairtrade Premium, which is designed to improve life for employees and their families. “The different factories that I’ve worked with have used the premiums for a variety of things,” says Milligan. “Healthcare and education are two of the common ones. They’ll do an eye exam. They’ll bring doctors to the factory and test not just the employees, but their whole families.” Employees at one certified factory use their premiums to shuttle stitchers to work and subsidize a grocery store for workers and their families.

Back on the turf at Andy Livingstone Park, the second half is underway. As play shifts to the east end, Heinrich, sporting a red pinny, finds himself in the box with the ball before him, a gift from a defender. He squares himself to the net, but his attempt is sky bound; the ball lands on the adjoining field. The sideline erupts with encouragement. Someone tosses another ball onto the pitch. The VSSL has been using Fairtrade certified balls since 2012, and with the league’s year-round schedule, its soccer balls “can’t be made of weak stuff,” says Heinrich.

VSSL’s Fairtrade certified balls, donated by Social Conscience, meet FIFA’s highest quality and performance standards. “When presented a choice of two equal products in everything except the back story,” Milligan says, “I think people like to choose something that makes a difference.”

Erik is the associate editor of

“The Beautiful Game: Changing lives at home and abroad”

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