Campaign for labour rights during the 2002 World Cup

Bruce Boon looks at the darker side of the World Cup: the working conditions of the workers, including child and forced labourers, who make footballs and other merchandise for FIFA and the multinational sponsors of the tournament. He also looks at the sham codes of conduct that these companies draw up with the help of NGOs to show that their workers are actually treated well.

Millions of eyes are turned eastwards these days. Or rather, they are turned towards the TV screen that constantly projects images of the Football World Cup in Japan and Korea this month. Soccer is one of the main instruments to knock up national sentiment. Despite our criticism of the way soccer is organised under capitalism, Marxists too enjoy watching this strategic game. Yet the World Cup has also its dark sides.

As stated by the Korean Policy & Information Center for International Solidarity (PICIS): "Major transnational businesses have gathered to take their share in this extravaganza. Companies such as Kodak, Phillips and Nike have obtained monopoly rights to advertise on subway trains and stations. In one station in the main business area of Seoul, not a single bit of the wall has been left unpasted with massive advertisements of Nike. The Korean government is also in full gear for the grand sporting event - from banning all demonstrations, to threatening deportation of migrant workers, to forcing workers to declare 'peace' during the event, to wiping out any signs of 'poverty' from the streets of Seoul."

One particularly dark side of the World Cup was recently exposed when activists revealed that footballs with the logo of the FIFA World Cup are often made by children's hands. Investigators from the Global March against Child Labour stayed for 10 weeks in Pakistan and found there more than 50 children who stitch footballs with the logo of FIFA and the major sponsors of the World Cup like Adidas and Coca Cola. They filmed these disgusting practices as proof.

Sometimes the children are not more than 5 years old. They work up to 14 hours a day in deplorable circumstances. "Many suffer from eyesight problems from focusing intensively in dark rooms for long hours," the investigators reported. They identified children with "twisted fingers from pulling on the string," cut wounds and back problems from sitting in the same position for long periods. In exchange for this torture they receive between 10 and 20 rupees (14p to 28p) a football. The FIFA sells officially branded footballs on its website for $91 (£64)!

On the occasion of the World Cup, the militant Korean trade union federation KCTU and several other organisations (like KoPa, AMRC and PICIS) that are gathered in the "Joint Action against TNC World Cup Sponsors that Exploit Child and Adult Labour", launched a campaign against child labour and other violations of labour rights in the sports industry. It is also aimed to bring attention to the situation of south-east Asian workers who are being exploited by Korean investors. In the streets of Seoul and Suwon, both host cities for World Cup matches, they distributed postcards that call FIFA to account. Furthermore, they held street protests, debates and the teachers' union of the KCTU even held special classes on child labour during the World Cup period.

Not by coincidence, the FIFA's World Cup 2002 is dedicated to the children of the world, the first time ever that the games have been pledged to a humanitarian cause. The games are opened by speeches of UNICEF for the cause of the children. Of course this is just a marketing tactic of FIFA and its sponsors to counter the criticism.

Are codes of conduct a solution?

Actually, it is not the first time that FIFA is called to order. Already at the 1998 World Cup, unions and NGOs revealed the use of child labour and other violations of workers rights in the production of FIFA consumer goods. Yet in 1996 a "code of conduct" was agreed between the FIFA and international unions whereby the FIFA stated that it would enforce this code upon all of its subcontractors. The code of conduct contains a prohibition on child and forced labour and an obligation to pay wages that are "sufficient to meet basic needs and provide some discretionary income."

As usual with codes of conducts by multinationals, many subcontractors don't comply with them. Aside from the canine hunger for profit that makes every capitalist (and subcontractor) look for the cheapest way to produce, subcontractors have to hand in the biggest part of the surplus value to the multinationals and therefore are obliged to produce things extremely cheaply. Cheap means among other things low wages and the use of child and forced labour. Codes of conduct do not address in any way these structural constraints of the capitalist international division of labour.

Moreover, codes of conduct have no legal status, they are not progressive labour laws but just private initiatives. Actually they are a capitalist response to the growing criticism towards multinationals and their conduct in the so-called Third World. Their real aim is to protect the company's name, not to improve workers' lives. During the whole implementation process of these codes of conduct, the "involved" workers stay passive. Often they don't even know about the creation of the code of conduct in the company where they work. At the most, unions can use existing codes of conduct to put some extra pressure on the bosses. But in no way does the drafting and implementation of codes imply a concrete struggle of the workers themselves. Drafting and implementation is left to the NGOs, the international labour bureaucracy and the bosses.

With initiatives like codes of conduct those negotiators treat the workers as a suffering class, not as a class that can liberate itself and lead the struggle for another society. If you adhere to such a paternalistic strategy, you should not be surprised when violations of workers' rights just move to another factory or region. Those violations will only stop when workers control the conditions in which they work themselves. Codes of conduct can never be an alternative to mass struggle against capitalist oppression. Of course we don't expect FIFA nor its corporate sponsors to support the digging of their own grave. But from workers' leaders we do expect it!