Indian sweatshop uses bonded child labor. Gap snaps ties. What now?

10 years ago

You may have already got a news overload of Gap's Indian shame.

If you haven't, here's a brief roundup: British newspaper, The Observer, unearthed a filthy garment sweatshop in New Delhi that was working children as young as 10 for as long as 16 hours a day for no pay. The kids were embroidering blouses for GapKids' Christmas stock.

Gap said the Indian vendor had subcontracted the work against company policies. The garments won't hit the American and European stores this holiday season.

There was sporadic reaction to the news in India. Activists called for more government action to curb child labor, more sweatshops were “raided”, the Delhi High Court asked the government to ensure that rescued children are rehabilitated properly, and the Indian government cried foul, calling such reports “motivated campaigns”.

Child labor, especially in India, is a complex subject and I can't nail it in this post. I'd like to raise some questions, though, about this vicious cycle, but let's lay the ground rule first – however common our goals to end child labor may be, India and the U.S. are not likely to deal with the issue alike anytime soon.

The Gap story is playing out differently in the two countries.

Let's start with India. The United Nations says India has the largest number of child laborers, the majority of them in the rural and informal labor sectors. Estimates of child laborers between ages five and 14 swing between 13 million to 100 million.

Last year, the government enacted a new law that bans children under the age of 14 from being employed as domestic help or in restaurants, food stalls or anywhere in the hospitality industry.

Looks great on paper, but then lots of our laws do. I have grown up seeing children working tables, dishes and what-not at roadside stalls and small restaurants. Anything to make a living.

During my visit to Kolkata (Calcutta) last year, I went to pick up my niece from school, which largely caters to children from fairly well-off families. My heart sank when I saw a young boy, who looked no older than 10, waiting to escort a child back home. His employers were obviously not sending him to any school.

Are the laws going to work? Will sweatshop owners be forced to have a change of heart? With so many people still reeling in poverty, don't expect results tomorrow. It's no surprise that people have wondered if it is fair to deprive impoverished families of their one shot at a new life.

Countless books and movies have made heroes of children who labor their way to decent (or criminal) lives.

Now, if we yank these kids out of the sweatshops, where do they go next?

We are looking at a mix of desperation and callousness. We have laws but poor social structures to support it. As Atanu Dey argues, child labor is the symptom not the problem. (He sums up the Indian argument pretty neatly. Check out his post).

As long as the economy is unable to ensure jobs, the government is unable to provide universal education that can help get those jobs, and the choice is between a life in a sweatshop and life on the streets, children are going to work.

K. Oanh Ha blogs at Flat World

about how her family may have broken some laws when she, as a child, helped her parents cut thread and stitch, bearing the burden of new immigrants trying to make ends meet in California.

This is the kind of argument that you are likely to see Indians make when faced with questions about child labor. I concede that this viewpoint, despite our discomfiture, cannot be disregarded:

I wonder if we Westerners romanticize childhood now that we can afford to as a developed country. When we first came to the U.S. my parents worked in garment shops that were owned by friends and relatives. They brought work home and I remember staying up late to help them cut thread and fix stitches. I'm sure some laws were being broken technically, but my parents really needed that money to feed us--and that meant me helping them. And that was right here in California.”

Now, why am I not surprised that this story has received little or no attention from Indian bloghers. We are either worried that these children will lose their only livelihood, or the sight of laboring children is so pervasive that it doesn't make us flinch anymore.

What, however, bothers me is how easily we can lose the point in all the din about child labor in India – these children stitching garments for Gap were NOT BEING PAID. That is slave labor, not just child labor. They were being exploited and were earning nothing to feed their hungry families.

We cannot wait for the economy to fix this problem.

Exploitation in the garment industry in India is widespread. NDTV reports how inhumanly long hours have driven workers to death or suicide. Most of the employees of these sweatshops – that supply products to foreign outlets – are women. And of course children, with their nimble fingers, are natural victims of these sweatshops, which also supply to India's high fashion industry, NDTV reports.

Even as these stories make our innards flip over, I am optimistic that a better economy and more career choices will eventually offer these women and children a way out.

But bonded child labor? That calls for immediate intervention.

For American (and European) consumers, however, the Gap story can be agonizing in more ways than one. We feel the pressing need for action, but we need the products (and maintain our lifestyles) too.

Do we have a choice but to believe companies when they claim they ensure their products are not being manufactured cheaply at the cost of someone's childhood?

Sarah of Pink Cereals and Raspberries says:

[...]when I learned that they were having a child labor problem, I grew concerned. Many of my clothes come from the Gap, or their sister stores Banana Republic and Old Navy. It would prove quite the challenge for me to boycott the store. So, unlike my willingness to believe, for such a long time, that Tommy Hilfigger was an awful person, I simply couldn't accept that Gap had gone so, so wrong.

[...]I am not clear on what to think of the Gap story. I won't stop wearing the clothes I do have, because, quite frankly, they make up so much of my wardrobe that someone would need to give me a large check in order for me to search out clothes not made by seven year olds. I will, however, strive for more caution when making purposes.

Manufacturing left the American shores a while back. We have got used to cheap clothing. No, we need it. And cheap clothing comes from cheap labor.

So how are we going to exercise more caution when we buy affordable clothing? What can we do?

Sepia Mutiny blogs about the Gap story

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