[Marxism] Is this garment stained with a child's sweat?: Child labor and The Gap

Pat Costello pt_costello at yahoo.com
Sat Nov 10 18:57:55 MST 2007


http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2200573,00.html

Child sweatshop shame threatens Gap's ethical image
An Observer investigation into children making clothes
has shocked the retail giant and may cause it to
withdraw apparel ordered for Christmas

Dan McDougall
Sunday October 28, 2007
Observer

Amitosh concentrates as he pulls the loops of thread
through tiny plastic beads and sequins on the
toddler's blouse he is making. Dripping with sweat,
his hair is thinly coated in dust. In Hindi his name
means 'happiness'. The hand-embroidered garment on
which his tiny needle is working bears the distinctive
logo of international fashion chain Gap. Amitosh is
10.

The hardships that blight his young life, exposed by
an undercover Observer investigation in the back
streets of New Delhi, reveal a tragic consequence of
the West's demand for cheap clothing. It exposes how,
despite Gap's rigorous social audit systems launched
in 2004 to weed out child labour in its production
processes, the system is being abused by unscrupulous
subcontractors. The result is that children, in this
case working in conditions close to slavery, appear to
still be making some of its clothes.

Gap's own policy is that if it discovers children
being used by contractors to make its clothes that
contractor must remove the child from the workplace,
provide it with access to schooling and a wage, and
guarantee the opportunity of work on reaching a legal
working age.

It is a policy to stop the abuse of children. And in
Amitosh's case it appears not to have succeeded. Sold
into bonded labour by his family this summer, Amitosh
works 16 hours a day hand-sewing clothing. Beside him
on a wooden stool are his only belongings: a tattered
comic, a penknife, a plastic comb and a torn blanket
with an elephant motif.

'I was bought from my parents' village in [the
northern state of] Bihar and taken to New Delhi by
train,' he says. 'The men came looking for us in July.
They had loudspeakers in the back of a car and told my
parents that, if they sent me to work in the city,
they won't have to work in the farms. My father was
paid a fee for me and I was brought down with 40 other
children. The journey took 30 hours and we weren't
fed. I've been told I have to work off the fee the
owner paid for me so I can go home, but I am working
for free. I am a shaagird [a pupil]. The supervisor
has told me because I am learning I don't get paid. It
has been like this for four months.'

The derelict industrial unit in which Amitosh and half
a dozen other children are working is smeared in
filth, the corridors flowing with excrement from a
flooded toilet.

Behind the youngsters huge piles of garments labelled
Gap - complete with serial numbers for a new line that
Gap concedes it has ordered for sale later in the year
- lie completed in polythene sacks, with official
packaging labels, all for export to Europe and the
United States in time for Christmas.

Jivaj, who is from West Bengal and looks around 12,
told The Observer that some of the boys in the
sweatshop had been badly beaten. 'Our hours are hard
and violence is used against us if we don't work hard
enough. This is a big order for abroad, they keep
telling us that.

'Last week, we spent four days working from dawn until
about one o'clock in the morning the following day. I
was so tired I felt sick,' he whispers, tears
streaming down his face. 'If any of us cried we were
hit with a rubber pipe. Some of the boys had oily
cloths stuffed in our mouths as punishment.'

Manik, who is also working for free, claims -
unconvincingly - to be 13. 'I want to work here. I
have somewhere to sleep,' he says looking furtively
behind him. 'The boss tells me I am learning. It is my
duty to stay here. I'm learning to be a man and work.
Eventually, I will make money and buy a house for my
mother.'

The discovery of the sweatshop has the potential to
cause major embarrassment for Gap. Last week, a
spokesman admitted that children appeared to have been
caught up in the production process and rather than
risk selling garments made by children it vowed it
would withdraw tens of thousands of items identified
by The Observer.

He said: 'At Gap, we firmly believe that under no
circumstances is it acceptable for children to produce
or work on garments. These allegations are deeply
upsetting and we take this situation very seriously.
All of our suppliers and their sub-contractors are
required to guarantee that they will not use child
labour to produce garments.

'It is clear that one of our vendors violated this
agreement, and a full investigation is under way.
After learning of this situation, we immediately took
steps to stop this work order and to prevent the
product from ever being sold in our stores. We are
also convening a meeting of our suppliers where we
will reinforce our prohibition on child labour.

'Gap Incorporated has a rigorous factory-monitoring
programme in place and last year we revoked our
approval of 23 factories for failing to comply with
our standards.

'We are proud of this programme and we will continue
to work with government, trade unions and other
independent organisations to put an end to the use of
child labour.'

In recent years Gap has made efforts to rebrand itself
as a leader in ethical and socially responsible
manufacturing, after previously being criticised for
practices including the use of child labour.

With annual revenues of more than £8bn and
endorsements from Madonna and Sex and The City star
Sarah Jessica Parker, Gap has arguably become the most
successful brand in high-street fashion. The latest
face of the firm's advertising is the singer Joss
Stone.

Founded in San Francisco in 1969 by Donald Fisher, now
one of America's wealthiest businessmen, Gap operates
more than 3,000 stores and franchises across the
world. In Britain Gap, babyGap and GapKids are very
successful, their own-brand jeans alone outselling
their retail rivals' lines by three to one.

Last year, the company embarked on a huge advertising
campaign surrounding 'Product Red', a charitable trust
for Africa founded by the U2 singer Bono and backed by
celebrities including Hollywood star Don Cheadle,
singers Lenny Kravitz and Mary J Blige, Steven
Spielberg and Penelope Cruz. As part of the
fundraising endeavour, Gap launched a new, limited
collection of clothing and accessories for men and
women with Product Red branding, the profits from
which are being channelled towards fighting Aids in
the Third World.

On its website the company states that all individuals
who work in garment factories deserve to be treated
with dignity and are entitled to safe and fair working
conditions and not since 2000, when a BBC Panorama
investigation exposed the firm's working practices in
Cambodia, have children been associated with the
production of their brand.

Gap has huge contracts in India, which boasts one of
the world's fastest-growing economies. But over the
past decade, India has also become the world capital
for child labour. According to the UN, child labour
contributes an estimated 20 per cent of India's gross
national product with 55 million children aged from
five to 14 employed across the business and domestic
sectors.

'Gap may be one of the best-known fashion brands with
a public commitment to social responsibility, but the
employment [by subcontractors ultimately supplying
major international retail chains] of bonded child
slaves as young as 10 in India's illegal sweatshops
tells a different story,' says Bhuwan Ribhu, a Delhi
lawyer and activist for the Global March Against Child
Labour.

'The reality is that most major retail firms are in
the same game, cutting costs and not considering the
consequences. They should know by now what outsourcing
to India means.

'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 even hide the children in sacks and in
carefully concealed mezzanine floors designed to dodge
such raids,' he explains.

'Employing cheap labour without proper auditing and
investigation of your contractor inevitably means
children will be used somewhere along the chain. This
may not be what they want to hear as they pull off
fresh clothes from clean racks in stores but shoppers
in the West should be thinking "Why am I only paying
£30 for a hand-embroidered top. Who made it for such
little cost? Is this top stained with a child's
sweat?" That's what they need to ask themselves.'

· The investigation was carried out in partnership
with WDR Germany.

· This article was amended on Sunday October 28 2007.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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