Last week, British newspaper The Observer published a troubling exposé about children as young as eight working in an apparel factory in India—a factory that made clothes for an American retail chain you might have heard of once or twice. It’s called Gap.
In The Observer’s damning report, we meet ten-year-old Amitosh, who, after being sold by his family, suffered a 30-hour journey by train to New Delhi. Tiny needles in tiny, nimble hands, Amitosh—whose name means “happiness” in Hindi—works 16 hours a day sewing and embroidering clothes. As he adds beads and sequins to toddler blouses, his sole possessions rest beside him: “a tattered comic, a penknife, a plastic comb and a torn blanket with an elephant motif.”
Amitosh is not getting paid, and, having been sold by his family, is essentially a child slave. Manik, a boy-laborer who hopes to buy a house for his mother one day, works for free. The factory supervisor explains that because they are learning, they do not earn wages.
Jivaj, from West Bengal, sobs as he describes recent days working “from dawn until about one o’clock in the morning the following day.” It was a big order for overseas, he and the other children were told.
“If any of us cried,” he says, “we were hit with a rubber pipe. Some of the boys had oily cloths stuffed in our mouths as punishment.”
The Observer describes the squalor, the sweatshop’s corridors drowned in excrement from flooding toilets. The image provides a disturbing contrast with the destination of the sweatshop’s products: shiny Western shelves stacked high with these hand-embroidered garments. At the time The Observer investigated, the factory’s wares were already in bags for export to the United States and Europe—to GapKids stores, no less, just in time for the holiday shopping season.
Gap, in its marketing strategy, touts an ardent commitment to improving the world. Endorsed by do-gooder celebrities like Don Cheadle, Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Steven Spielberg, and Lenny Kravitz, Gap has won acclaim with its Product Red campaign, a global fund to fight AIDS in Africa (co-founded, of course, by U2’s own Bono). The Project Red ’Manifesto’ declares, “As first world consumers, we have tremendous power. What we collectively choose to buy, or not to buy, can change the course of life and history on this planet.”
That the Gap recently re-branded itself as a purveyor of social conscience is a sick twist in light of The Observer’s exposé.
Yet, to be fair, Gap has worked hard to develop a sophisticated sense of corporate social responsibility. The justly embarrassed corporation was quick to respond, vowing to “forcefully reiterate” its prohibition on child labor. It promised to withdraw and destroy the tens of thousands of garments produced by children in this factory (though donating them might be a better answer).
In accordance with its rigorous factory-monitoring program, Gap is requiring the vendor to remove child laborers from the workplace, to provide them with schooling and back wages, and to guarantee them employment opportunities upon reaching legal work age.
In an unusual gesture, Marka Hansen, the president of Gap North America, posted a “Message to Our Customers” on the Gap website thanking the news media for shedding light on this abhorrent situation. She explained that a vendor had subcontracted a portion of an order to an unauthorized facility—the facility that The Observer visited. While it is laudable that Gap has a factory monitoring program, it is evident from the Observer exposé that the company can do better.
India is one of the world’s fast-growing economies, and Gap, as one of the world’s largest fashion retailers (with 3,000 stores worldwide), has massive production contracts there. It is nice indeed that Gap has taken a stand on child labor—yet, no matter what the company does, these exploitative conditions are unlikely to disappear in India.
Official government estimates indicate that 12 million children are employed at an illegally young age in India, while the U.N. estimates about 55 million child laborers there —which would make child labor responsible for 20 percent of India’s gross national product. Not only Gap, not only Nike, not only Wal-Mart, but also India’s government need to step up their monitoring efforts—and especially to crack down on employers who illegally employ children.
“The reality is that most major retail firms are in the same game, cutting costs and not considering the consequences,” Bhuwan Ribhu, a Delhi lawyer and activist, told The Observer. “It is an impossible task to track down all of these terrible sweatshops, particularly in the garment industry when you need little more than a basement or an attic crammed with small children to make a healthy profit.
“Some owners,” he added, “even hide the children in sacks and in carefully concealed mezzanine floors designed to dodge such raids.”
In a region where factory owners drool for cheap labor, it’s very difficult to properly investigate every apparel factory. Bonded child labor is illegal in India, yet employment of under-age children and bonded labor remain a fact of life there.
In a society where poverty is so prevalent, child labor is sometimes considered a lesser evil. Some poor families feel compelled to sell their children into bonded labor because it means an increase of income and one less mouth to feed.
To show its commitment and its concern, India should sign the International Labor Organization’s 1999 Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which prohibits “the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labor” and work which is likely to harm the “health, safety, or morals of children.”
Gap should do more than admit that child labor plays a role in the cruel caste system of the global supply chain. Unless the company is taking cues about children’s health from Bush and his veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), Gap should go beyond demanding facts from its factories. It could join forces with RugMark, a global nonprofit that works to end child labor and offer education for children in India, Nepal, and Pakistan.
The issue is not whether GapKids embroidery is stitched by South Asian kids; it is whether children in all sectors of our global economy are able to lead normal, unexploited lives. Children should have the chance to go to school and thrive, and not be sold for as little as 500 rupees (12.50 USD).
Maybe I should roll my eyes less at the droves of Wesleyan students outfitted exclusively in sweatshop-free American Apparel.