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Soccer balls and teenagers: doing right


News of yet another corporate merger and record Wall Street profits swirls around sound bites about budget cuts for the poor and global deterioration of wage, environmental and living standards. U.S. corporations set up shops in India and Guatemala as a German car manufacturer, lured by juicy tax breaks, opens factories in Alabama. Each trip to the mall to buy a sweatshirt made in Sri Lanka or a computer mouse made in Mexico brings with it the feeling that we have little to say about the course of the economic system that affects almost every aspect of our lives.

Anxiety mounts as we sense that all we once held dear -- time with our families and friends, care for our children and elders, dignified work for all, the sanity of our planet -- is eroding under the rush of a lifestyle defined not by values but by an international market bottom line that few of us comprehend.

In this context, we can learn from teenagers and soccer balls. In February, 53 international sporting goods firms -- prompted by children's rights and labor advocates and by news coverage of the horrors of child labor -- pledged to curb sales of soccer balls sewn by children in Pakistan, where 75 percent of all soccer balls are made.

Transnationals like Adidas, Reebok, Nike and Umbro joined noncorporate organizations to create a $1 million fund to monitor labor conditions in Pakistani soccer ball plants. The effort will also provide schooling to youngsters whose parents, driven by unrelenting poverty, have sold children as young as 6 to a system of labor bondage that outstrips the horrors of the industrial revolution.

Supported by $500,000 from the International Labor Organization, $360,000 from ball manufacturers in Pakistan, $200,000 from UNICEF and $100,000 from the Soccer Industry Council of America, the fund may not have a huge impact on global child labor, even in Pakistani soccer ball plants. An estimated 10,000 children under 14 years of age work grueling shifts sewing soccer balls in that nation, which, according to one report, spends 240 times more on its military than it does on health and education.

Moreover, the ball sewers are a small fraction of between eight and 11 million Pakistani children and an estimated 200 million youngsters worldwide whose childhoods are spent battling malnutrition as they toil in sweatshops and brick mills, gas stations and restaurants, brothels, fields and docks.

Despite these limitations, the program is important because it represents the latest in a struggle supported by a rather unlikely group of advocates -- transnational teenagers. Letters and petitions from thousands of young U.S. and European soccer players and their parents pressured the multinational sports manufacturers to pay attention to the child labor conditions in Pakistani ball facilities.

A prelude to that campaign was the effort by adolescents in the Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, Mass., to expose the practice of child bondage in Pakistani rug factories. The students adopted this issue as their mission in 1994, the year they received a visit from Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old from Pakistan who at age 4 was sold into bondage in a rug factory. Masih was beaten by his bosses and paid the going rate of about 60 cents a rug for weaving rugs that netted as much as $2,000 each in U.S. and European stores.

After escaping the bondage system in 1994, Masih received a Reebok Human Rights Award for his activism against child labor. Four months later, around Easter, 1995, gunmen shot and killed Masih in a Pakistani village where he was visiting relatives. Human rights advocates began to build a case against the "carpet mafia" for his death. Broad Meadows Middle School children began to build a school in Masih's village to honor him, garnering support -- through a savvy Scholastic Network E-mail campaign -- from junior high school children in 34 U.S. states.

Now, Reebok, the corporation that honored Masih, is one of the 53 sporting goods manufacturers that felt compelled to sign the pledge to eliminate child labor from the sweatshops that produce its soccer balls. Adults who feel disabled by the impact of economic changes might find hope in the Bible teaching that states "a child shall lead."

We could take a cue from the Broad Meadows Middle school youth who were not bewildered by the complexities of international economics, did not allow the forces of global capitalism to render them powerless.

Instead, they did things as children do, a step at a time, humanizing the realities of the global market as a result of their relationship with Masih, before and after his death. Their knowledge spurred them to act in ways an economic scholar or policymaker would admire: They set up a bank account for their building fund, lobbied Washington senators on the day of the vote on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (how many adults can claim knowledge of GATT?), and set out to learn what it takes to run a nongovernmental project in a developing nation. Those teenagers embraced the intricacies of global finance and grassroots development, of multilateral trade treaties, of international labor codes, of computer networking.

The thousands of soccer-playing children and their parents, meanwhile, who wrung the February pledge from soccer ball manufacturers, manipulated other key tools of the market -- corporate image and consumer opinion. John Riddle, president of the U.S. Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, confirmed the effectiveness of these tactics in an interview with The New York Times: "What [the manufacturers] are reacting to is a potential degradation of the value of their brand. They think their brands are important, that their corporate good name is important, and they don't want to see that impaired."

Granted, the task seems daunting considering that U.S.-based corporations alone spend $150 billion annually on advertising. It appears even more formidable when we learn from Tony Clarke, former chair of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Canadian Council of Churches, that global transnational corporations "spend well over half as much money on advertising as the nation states of the world combined spend on public education."

None of these odds, however, frightened the Broad Meadows Middle School children or the soccer-playing youth who grabbed the attention of ball manufacturers. What's more, the Broad Meadows youngsters were not afraid to open their minds and their hearts to Masih and the facts of his life. They were not afraid to believe they could make connections, that they could have an impact. They were not afraid to trust the ripple.

Seventh grader Jen Grogan, writing on the class Web site, challenged others to do the same: "When I was younger and eating steak with vegetables, Iqbal was working 14 hours a day. When I was playing, Iqbal was still working. When I was watching TV, Iqbal was working harder and harder.

"He is free now, but there are still 7.5 million children in bonded labor right now in Pakistan. So when you get the chance, stop, maybe before bed, or in the hall, while watching TV or when you are sitting on the bench waiting your turn to go into the game, think some. Turn off the TV or radio and pray, hope and even later write a letter for the children of Pakistan.

"I am more thankful, appreciative and grateful. He made me think of easy and hard things in a different way."

Leslie Wirpsa, head of NCR's West Coast bureau in Los Angeles, is also Latin America editor.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 1997