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U.S. Clothing Company Drops New Delhi Contractor


U.S. Clothing Company Drops New Delhi Contractor

Multinational apparel giant Gap Inc. acted quickly after discovering that a Gap contractor in New Delhi employed children.

"We strictly prohibit the use of child labor. This is non-negotiable for us -- and we are deeply concerned and upset by this allegation," Gap North America President Marka Hansen said.

The October 28 statement followed revelations in a British newspaper, The Observer, that quoted child workers' accounts of being sold by their parents, forced to work 16-hour days without pay and being beaten. Children as young as 10 years old were held in conditions of abject slavery.

"I'm not surprised," Sudhanshu Joshi told USINFO. "There have been complaints for a long time about Gap." Joshi is executive director of the Washington-based International Center on Child Labor and Education (ICCLE), and has worked on the issue for United Nations agencies, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the World Bank. He added that child labor is endemic in India.

"Gap has to prove that it is not going to thrive in business on the strength of the very cheap child labor that is available," he said, recommending stronger involvement of businesses with governments and civil society to monitor industries prone to using child labor.

Hansen said Gap Inc. is committed to fighting for workers' rights in cooperation with governments, nongovernmental organizations, trade unions and other interested parties. Lapses exposed several years ago caused Gap to make serious efforts to monitor and prevent sweatshop and child labor in countries where its products are made.

Social responsibility is now part of its mission. "We believe that all individuals who work in garment factories deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and are entitled to safe and fair working conditions," according to the Gap Web site.

"As soon as we were alerted to this situation, we stopped the work order and prevented the product from being sold in stores," Hansen said, citing Gap's "strict prohibition on child labor." Gap called an emergency meeting with regional suppliers to reinforce the policy.

CHILD LABOR A WIDSPREAD PROBLEM

Although bonded child labor is illegal in India, the practice is still widespread. The U.S. Department of Labor 2006 international child labor report states that approximately 4.1 percent of boys and 4.0 percent of girls ages 5 to 14 are forced to work in India. Most work in agriculture, but children are employed in many other, often hazardous, industries. Living conditions frequently are poor, and abuse is common. According to India's leading anti-child labor organization, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), children may be purchased for labor in impoverished villages of India for as little as Rs. 500 ($12.50 US).

A day after the Observer story ran, BBA, in cooperation with law enforcement, rescued 14 bonded child laborers in New Delhi. The children, the youngest 8 years old, embroidered fabric in the same Shahpur Jaat neighborhood and under conditions similar to those endured by the children making clothes for Gap.

BBA co-founder Kailash Satyarthi said, "We are glad that after so many years the situation has changed a little as the international brands like Gap have admitted that there is child labor involved in their supply chain, and we also appreciate their immediate response to the situation," but, he added, stronger steps are needed. He advocates a certifying body such as Rugmark, which prevents child labor through strict guidelines and regular monitoring.

India has progressed in curbing child labor, Joshi said, but it still has a long way to go. "The government of India has been very, very bold and proactive," he said, but he thinks India should sign the International Labour Organization's Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (1999), which has been ratified by 165 nations. "It would have huge value," and send "a strong message."

The 2006 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report finds Indian law enforcement insufficient for the scope of the problem, and frequently hampered by corruption.

Added to this, numerous "factories" employing child laborers are small units operating from houses in residential areas.

The U.S. Department of Labor partners with the government of India on the INDUS project, which aims to free 80,000 children from hazardous work by September 2008.

To Joshi, education is critical, and he said good education can be given to all "in the new resurgent India, which has the means to do that, and show to the world it can do it."

Gap spokesman Bill Chandler told the Associated Press, "Under no circumstances is it acceptable for children to produce or work on garments," saying the company is grateful "that the media identified this subcontractor."

Bhuwan Ribhu, lawyer and BBA activist, said he appreciated Gap's actions, but "Instead of cancelling the order the business houses should make sure that wherever their production is going on, the manufacturing units shouldn't employ children and also [should] regularly monitor their contractors and subcontractors."

ENDS

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