I RECENTLY heard that PETA have turned their attention to leather basketballs which are used in tournaments in the United States. They have convinced the NCAA to change to synthetic balls for all championship tournaments at each divisional level beginning in 2003.

‘We’re always looking for new ways to prevent animal cruelty’, says PETA’s sports camapaign co-ordinator Dan Shannon. ‘We know not to use fur anymore. We’ve moved on to leather. Wearing leather isn’t a lot different than wearing fur.’

Shannon also said they had begun talks with the NBA about switching their basketballs away from leather and since the NBA would like consistency across the board they are likely to make the change ‘pretty quickly’.

Shannon compounded his ignorance of the true nature of leather when asked about relative costs of leather versus synthetic materials by saying: ‘It is hard to put a price on a cow’s life.’

So we have this ludicrous situation whereby American basketball teams will play championship matches with synethetic balls in the mistaken belief that they are saving a cow from cruelty and death when in fact they would have been helping the environment by buying a product made from the waste of the meat industry.

Things are completely different in the world of soccer. Here, there is a well established precedence for the use of leather footballs, although PETA will also become active here no doubt.

One of the major suppliers of leather footballs is the Sialkot region in Pakistan which came under a lot of fire for the use of child labour. To maintain the trade they have had to change this practice to meet ethical standards.

However, according to an article in the South China Morning Post, many young children are still being used to stitch footballs for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup 2002, this time in the Punjab in northern India.

India is the second biggest manufacturer of footballs, after Pakistan, and the city of Jaladhar is the capital of the Indian sports manufacturing industry. Manufacturers commonly give the work out to sub-contractors who employ children between the ages of nine and thirteen.

All high quality balls are hand stitched and in Jalandhar this is done by children who either work instead of going to school or attend school in the morning and work in the afternoon. ‘Some children stitch footballs for ten to twelve hours a day’, says Kailash Satyarthi, chairman of the Global March Against Child Labour.

Despite the practice having received a great deal of adverse publicity last year, the exploitation of children has simply gone underground. A pressure group in Jalandhar, Volunteers for Social Justice, said that the sweatshops had been moved from the city to villages.

Jal Singh of the VSJ estimates the number of children working in Jalandhar and the countryside is about 30,000, much higher than the figure of 10,000 given in an Indian Labour Department report in 1999.

The controversy obliged FIFA and international sporting goods companies, whose products are licenced by FIFA, to commit themselves to eliminating child labour. The problem is that effective monitoring mechanisms are not in place. Gerry Pinto, Unicef in Delhi, said that although everyone concerned agreed that the poor image of the sports goods industry needed to be improved, ‘instead of rectifying it, they are using children surreptitiously.’

Pinto says: ‘If you saw the palatial homes of the manufacturers in Jalandhar, you’d know that they have no defence for not observing their social responsibilities.’