SIALKOT — Mohammad Idrees walks slowly, with the help of his crutches, to the factory where he works in Sialkot, Pakistan. The 35-year-old has been stitching soccer balls here for more than 17 years, earning $3 a day to support his wife and six children.

“I don’t have any other skills to earn a living, so I would have ended up roaming around the city or begging on the street if it wasn’t for the football factory in our village,” Idrees says as he sits on a low chair with some 30 other workers inside the factory. “I work for myself and for the reputation of my country, to earn respect.”

His wife Shazia Idrees and his two daughters work at the same factory. She has to take her 4-year-old son to work, because there is no one is at home to look after him.

“We can only provide for the family when both of us are working,” Shazia says. “Otherwise, we would never be able to pay all our expenses. Sometimes my husband can’t work because of the pain in his leg. Then things are very difficult.”

Every year, Pakistan exports 20 million soccer balls — which are called footballs in Pakistan, the United Kingdom and many other parts of the world — to leagues across the globe.

And Sialkot city is known as the world’s soccer ball-producing capital, boasting about 2,000 such factories in the city. There’s even a huge gold-colored soccer ball standing at the entrance to Sialkot.

Safdar Sandal was one of the first businessmen to export Pakistan-made soccer balls, and his “Tango” ball was used in the 1982 FIFA World Cup.

“At this moment, I am very happy to say that we have increased the production of footballs not only in my factory but in all factories in the city,” Sandal says. “We have about a 35% increase in their production because of the World Cup.”

For generations, making soccer balls has been the main source of living in the city, and the industry employs some 200,000 people here.

“Football is a game and a source of enjoyment for players, while for others it’s a source of income,” says 59-year-old Ghafoor Husain, who has been working in this factory since he was little. “I love football because I know that my family wouldn’t be able to eat if I didn’t stitch footballs. I don’t want my children to end up like me.” 

The city of Sialkot produces some 75% of the world’s hand-stitched balls, which are sold as international brands such as Adidas, Nike and Reebok.

The workers here see only a fraction of the amount that consumers eventually pay for the sports equipment made here. Riffat Naseer, a 35-year-old mother of eight, receives only $1 dollar a day for stitching two balls.

“I started learning how to stitch footballs when I got married and saw the women stitching them at home,” she says. “My eyesight has deteriorated, and I have backaches and feel pain in my shoulders. But I still have to work to support my big family. I have to work hard.”

Child labor and a dark past

At one time, most of the factory workers here were children. But in the wake of an international outcry, child labor has been banned in Sialkot since 2007. “The production of footballs decreased when the government banned child labor in factories,” says Liaqat Chudhery, a factory manager who used to employ children. It’s hard now to find workers.”

The wages are low too. Women earn around $20 dollars a week while men can earn double that amount. The chairman of the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce says this is something that they’re struggling to improve.

“We are constantly working on that,” he says. “If the exporters get good prices for the products, then we will bring back better payment for the workers.”

After a 10-hour shift at the factory, Mohammad Idrees and his wife are walking back home. Shazia takes off her husband’s shoes and begins to cry.

“I wish my children could get a good education, but it will never happen,” she says. “I know we can’t, and will never be able to afford it, because we can hardly even provide meals for them. I know my children’s lives will be like ours, and I know our lives will never change at all.”