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Pakistan's hand-stitched balls

Written by: Staff
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SIALKOT, Pakistan, June 6 (Reuters) The World Cup in faraway Germany is putting a big bounce into Pakistan's hand-stitched football manufacturing business.

Although Pakistani balls are not actually going to be used in any of the matches in the month-long tournament in Germany beginning on June 9, the football frenzy the World Cup generates means big orders for Pakistani ball makers.

''There is a boom for us when the World Cup is held,'' said Arif Mahmood Sheikh, chairman of the Sialkot Sports Goods Manufacturers Association.

The northeastern Pakistani town of Sialkot normally exports about 60 million footballs a year.

It has already exported about 35 million balls in World Cup related orders this year, valued 112 million dollar. In the 2002 World Cup, Sialkot exported balls worth 105 million dollar.

''This World Cup is good for us as Germany has always been our biggest importer,'' Sheikh said.

Most of the footballs will be used in promotions by some of the world's biggest credit-card, fast-food and sports equipment companies, he said.

The unassuming town, not far from the Himalayan foothills and the frontier with India, is the hub of the country's sporting goods industry.

An old Gothic church is a reminder of its colonial past.

Legend has it the town got started in the sports business in the late nineteenth century when an Englishman, in what was then part of British India, asked for his broken tennis racket to be repaired.

The work was top notch and the town has not looked back. Many of those working in the industry today learned the trade from their fathers, who learnt it from theirs.

Sheikh says Pakistani hand-stitched footballs are still in great demand in Europe despite the demand for machine-moulded seamless balls.

''The reason is the unique craftsmanship,'' said Sheikh in his simple office.

CHILD LABOUR The industry has been dogged by accusations of child labour, which Sheikh says it is striving to throw off with serious action.

Signs reading: ''Children under 18 not permitted entry'', and ''Discourage Child Labour'' are posted at factory entrances.

''The ILO monitors our workers regularly,'' Sheikh said, referring to the International Labour Organisation.

But it is monotonous labour for the 100,000 skilled workers putting in World Cup over-time in small factory rooms or big stitching centre halls.

''I manage to stitch five to six footballs a day,'' said Abid, 18, has been hand stitching balls for six years. He was taught by an uncle and has learnt nothing else.

He works in a hot, cheerless room littered with footballs of every colour. He earns about 1 dollar a ball, which sounds a pittance but the 5 or 6 dollar he earns a day makes him better off than many other Pakistani workers.

REUTERS AY RN0936

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