NEW DELHI – With only five months left until the 2002 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup kicks off in Japan and Korea, activists from around the world are putting increasing pressure on FIFA and national teams to make this championship the first international sporting event free of child labor and in compliance with fair labor standards.

India and Pakistan are the largest producers for the world soccer championship.

According to a recent report by the India Committee of the Netherlands and the All-Pakistan Federation of Labor (APFL), thousands of children in Pakistan and India are involved in the production of soccerballs.

Moreover, workers in both countries are earning wages much lower than the legal minimum wage and many basic labor rights are routinely neglected. Their life of exploitation is shared by another 250 million working children around the world and many of their families.

“I have been stitching footballs for as long as I can remember,” confided Geeta, a young girl from Jalandhar, India who estimated her age to be between 10 and 12 years old told a representative from Global March Against Child Labor. “My hands are constantly in pain. It feels like they are burning. There is nothing I can do – I have to help my older sister complete the order.”

Most children are forced into labor to help their families earn enough money to survive.

Hence, football stitching becomes home-based family work where a middleman, who acts on behalf of a sporting goods manufacturer, provides the soccer pieces for in-home production. A normal working day does not often provide the workers with even the legal minimum wage.

While helping their families, many of the children miss out on education, creating a vicious circle of poverty and uneducated labor.

Mohan Lal, a local stitcher, said that his own children and neighbors’ children were involved in stitching footballs for the 2002 World Cup. He maintained, however, that children were not involved in the production of sporting gloves.

In 1998 FIFA established a Code of Conduct to prohibit the use of child labor and to require decent working conditions and wages for adult workers in all FIFA-licensed products. However, available evidence points to routine violations of the code by the manufacturers.

“In India, an industry-led monitoring system exists, however it lacks transparency as there is no public information about its functioning or results,” said Gerard Oonk, author of “The Dark Side of Football” report on labor conditions in the football industry in Punjab, India published in 2001.

None of the current monitoring systems enforces key labor rights for adult workers, most notably wages.

“A game that is supposed to inspire youth and entertain the world,” said Kailash Satyarthi, chairperson of the Global March “must not be played with footballs sewn with the sweat of children.”