No such thing as a free football–we need to defend ‘made in India’

Headline from the Age newspaper in Grand Final week

Headline from the Age newspaper in Grand Final week

The iconic Australian football manufacturer Sherrin has been forced to withdraw its half a million footballs, after it was discovered they were sewn by poor children in India.

With maximal impact, the scandal broke in Fairfax media at the beginning of Grand Final weekend. Despite safeguards and standards of corporate social responsibility, it was revealed that children in the slums of Jalandhar in the Punjab are paid as little as 12 cents an hour. At the same time, they experience damaging side effects including septic fingers, allergies and back problems. More importantly, they also lose the opportunity to gain an education and escape poverty.

The follow up story at the beginning of the week reported that a young boy Dylan Ferlano had found a needle in an Auskick football. This prompted Sherrin CEO Chris Lambert to withdraw all the footballs to the coast of $1 million.

From a global perspective it’s a salutary tale. Footy is one of our most sacred institutions. The oval ball is an object around which we celebrate noble Aussie virtues of mateship, guts and reconciliation. Yet even here, the snaking supply chain of globalisation finds its way in, taking away our otherwise innocent enjoyment. In this case, it literally pricks out conscience. It’s similar to the scandal associated with worker suicides at the Foxconn factories that produce the iPhone.

This is not a new story. The tale reinforces the colonial perspective on the Third world that was so masterfully captured in Joseph Conrad’s depiction of Congo’s rubber plantations in Heart of Darkness—‘the horror, the horror.’ The immediate response is to cease supporting the operation and hope it closes down. Bit the Sherrin football scandal has the potential to taint other products made in India by association.

Without diminishing the shame of child labour, the Sherrin scandal does reveal the strength of craft skill in contemporary India. While we might see it as drudgery, there are at least 20 million Indian adults who take pride in their capacity to made beautiful objects by hand. The techniques of block-printing, hand-weaving and natural dyes are becoming increasingly rare and sought after.

Artisans of Fashion display in Strand Arcade, Sydney

Artisans of Fashion display in Strand Arcade, Sydney

At the same time that ‘made in India’ is vilified in Melbourne, it is being celebrated in Sydney. From late winter, the Artisans of Fashion program has been promoting the craft skills of India. Australia’s top fashion designers feature in parades and exhibitions centred in the city’s Strand Arcade. Billboards around Sydney featuring waif like models set against a backdrop of vibrant colourful India.

Far from demonising hand production, the key aim of Artisans of Fashion is to help it survive. According to its founder Carline Poiner , ‘Once a generation stops using a particular technique, it is lost.’

Increasingly, Australian designers are going to India to take advantage of these skills. And it’s more about quality than profit margin. In the case of that other iconic sport, the Melbourne design Simone Le Amon has made a career out of partnership with an Indian cricket ball manufacturer, who provides offcuts for her ‘A good sport’ bracelets.

Set in Sydney’s design precinct of Surry Hills, Planet is one of the many upmarket outlets which is increasing amount of product that is made in India. For owner Ross Longmuir, making things for others is a long-standing practice in India, ‘Traditional hand craft skills in India go back centuries for export production and are spectacularly good’. Longmuir is even planning to set up a second home in India to focus more on local production.

Rather than pull out of India, Longmuir recommends that Sherrin set up education subsidies for female children in these communities. ‘And for this not to be a token move, I would suggest that Sheridan executives should visit India and get involved directly with this project and that there should be a follow up of results.’

For many Australians, involvement in India is not just a matter of getting stuff made cheaply. They have an interest in long-term benefits. Designer Carole Douglas helped in the reconstruction of Ahmedabad after the earthquake. Funds from Artisans of Fashion go to towards supporting an orphanage in Jaipur.

We’ve become increasingly dependent on the skills of people from countries like India. They make our clothes, build our gadgets, answer our telephones, administer our finances and code our software. Returning footballs, even in such quantity, is not going to stem our increasing dependence on the work of others.

Certainly, it is important to develop strong codes of practice and workable auditing procedures. But in the end, it will come down to the consumer to accept that we have to pay more for what we use. There’s no such thing as a free football.

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