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Child labour Versus quality clothing

October 29, 2007

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NEW DELHI: 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 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.

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.

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 this reporter.

Gap has huge contracts in India, 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.

—Dawn/The Observer News Service