THE AFL will continue to use Auskick balls hand-stitched by Indian children but Sherrin could be sacked as ball supplier after being hit with a breach of agreement notice by the league.
The AFL refused to comment yesterday on whether it would recall or stop distributing Sherrin balls made in India after the Herald revealed children were working up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week stitching the footballs for 12¢ a ball.
The AFL has about 170,000 five-to-12-year-olds involved in its nationwide Auskick program. All participants are given a synthetic Auskick football when they sign up. Most are hand-stitched in India.
AFL boss Andrew Demetriou declined to be interviewed yesterday but a spokesman said: "We understand Sherrin is investigating these very serious claims and will continue to provide us with information as it comes to hand. The AFL has strict contractual regulations with licensees and in order to maintain these regulations we have formally provided Sherrin with a notice of breach of agreement while these investigations are ongoing."
The AFL's agreement with Sherrin contains a specific provision prohibiting the use of child labour. It has issued Sherrin with a ''please explain'' notice over its use of child labourers, most of them girls, who are pulled out of school to stitch balls. The league is awaiting the results of Sherrin's own investigations, but a termination of Sherrin's contract as official ball supplier to the league is a possible sanction.
The Herald investigation found children stitching balls in the industrial city of Jalandhar, in India's Punjab, where it is believed tens of thousands of houses in the region are home to stitchers. Stitching a Sherrin Auskick ball takes more than an hour. Children are paid seven rupees, or about 12¢, for each finished ball.
Daniel Mackey, program manager with Fair Trade Australia, said the use of child labour to produce sports balls was not a problem global brands could claim ignorance of. "We are not surprised that child labour has been found, once again, making sports balls,'' he said. ''But [Sherrin] is an iconic brand and it's very disappointing our market here in Australia is supporting this practice." Ten million balls were imported into Australia from India each year, he said.
Susan Mizrahi, a human rights and social responsibility advocate who has researched India's sports ball industry, said: "That companies might not know about the use of child labour in their supply chains is no longer a sufficient excuse."
Poverty and cultural factors meant girls were often forced to stay home to support their families by working full-time. "Many parents do not see the value of sending their daughters to school. I talked with a number of children, particularly girls, who sat in the same hunched position all day sewing balls. They got up only to undertake household chores. They suffered from back, leg and neck pain, cuts on their fingers that sometimes became septic and poor eyesight. The practice can also lead to severe depression and other psychological conditions,'' she said.