Seldom do the worlds of elite Australian sport and child labour come into contact.

Amongst the coverage of the weekend’s preliminary finals, Jobe Watson’s Brownlow medal win and the impending Grand Final this story has largely flown under the radar.

The Age newspaper revealed recently that children in India, some as young as 7 years old, have been involved in the production of the iconic AFL Sherrin footballs.  For their efforts in stitching the balls they were paid around 12 cents per ball.

The reaction from Sherrin and the AFL has been swift, with announcements that the company will no longer subcontract certain areas of its business and balls which were to be used at the North Melbourne Grand Final breakfast will be withdrawn, and a donation made to World Vision.  The AFL has refused calls to sack Sherrin as its official supplier, however has asked for a ‘please explain’ from the company.  In the meantime, Australian children will continue to play with around 170,000 Auskick balls, stitched by Indian children of a similar age.

A child in India stitching footballs with the Channel Nine logo

The revelation, which harks back to the 1990’s when Nike, Reebok and Adidas were exposed, will see many condemn it immediately.  However it does prompt a broader discussion of child labour, particularly in developing countries.

Nike: infamous abuser of child workers, exposed in the 1990’s

While it is easy to condemn child labour immediately, it is not such a simple issue.

Case study:  A child of 12 years old wakes at 6am, six days a week, to work – rain, hail or shine.  He works for about 1 hour each day and at the end of the week receives $25 cash.  At about $4 per hour, the wage he is being paid is well below the minimum and the child is legally too young to be working anyway.  The hazards of the job include attacks by animals, being hit by cars and potential illness from working in the elements.  Is this child being exploited?  The answer in this case is no, because that was me, in my first job as a paperboy.

Of course, there are many differences between my example and the children stitching footballs in India, although it highlights how when presented in a certain way, child labour can appear as worse than it may actually be.

The broader issue of child labour raises many questions.

Are there times when child labour is ok?  How young is too young to be working?  Do children have a right to choose work over education?  Do rich countries have unfair expectations of developing countries to eradicate child labour?  Is it unfair to single out Sherrin, when many other products still use child labour in their production, most notably chocolate companies like Cadbury and Hershey’s?  Is child labour simply an unfortunate, yet necessary by product of the capitalist, globalised system we live in?

UNICEF and the ILO estimate there are around ‘158 million children aged 5-14 are engaged in child labour.’  While it would be hard, nigh impossible, to mount a case for the continuation of extreme forms of child labour such as prostitution and dangerous mining and construction work, most child labour, while perhaps economically exploitative to the individual, often benefits the family and immediate community.  The benefits of child labour and the need for its regulation and control are recognised in Bolivia, where UNATSBO represents child workers aged between 8 and 18.  Indeed across Latin America similar union movements for child workers have existed for many years, the first in Peru more than 30 years ago.

If child labour was eradicated tomorrow it is fair to say that the economies of the developing world at least, would collapse from their already fragile perch.  While working towards a world without child labour is a fine goal, morally and economically, real alternatives must be installed before that is to happen.

Further reading

Globalization and the Economics of Child Labor

The Economic Impact of Child Labour

Benefits of eliminating child labour far outweigh costs, UN agency reports


International Labour Organisation

The Child Labor Coalition

No Logo – Naomi Klein

Globalization and its discontents – Joseph Stiglitz

Development as freedom – Amartya Sen