Mind the GAP
The Gap is a major international clothign company with outlets in shopping malls and main streets across the world. Its brands also include Banana Republic. The company's social responsibility report showed problems – from unsafe machinery to the use of child labour – in the thousands of factories it uses around the world to produce clothing for its retail chains. The company produces garments in 3,000 factories located in 50 countries. It has a team of more than 90 compliance officers who conduct about 8,500 factory visits each year.
In two factories The Gap found under-age workers – though in both cases the children were older than 14. The most frequent violations of The Gap's code of conduct included factories not complying with local laws on annual leave, failure to pay the minimum wage, working weeks in excess of 60 hours, inaccurate record keeping and machinery lacking safety devices.
Following further investigation by The Observer newspaper and TV pictures showing a 10-year-old boy in India sewing clothes bearing the brand’s logo, the company took a decision to destroy the clothes involved. The had boy told the newspaper he had been sold to the factory owner by his family.
The “No Sweat” campaigners have won the argument. No international company these days wants to be seen employing child labour, worse still child bonded labour, or having its clothing made in sweatshop conditions. What is at fault is the system of subcontracting the work to poor countries, where standards are lower and enforcement is much harder (the court system does not always work well, and a bribe can sort matters out).
The economic benefit to factory owners or their subcontractors of employing underage labour makes it hard to stamp out. Even where there are factory inspections and everything seems OK, there may be another plant out at the back which the factory owner will never admit to or open up.
If the practice of employing child labour is to be stamped out, several things need to happen:
• There needs to be more collaboration amongst the clothing manufacturers.
• There needs to be more engagement of the middle classes in the poor countries involved (such as India) so that local opinion shifts decisively against child labour.
• There needs to be much more engagement by opinion formers and the middle classes in the poorer countries where child labour remains prevalent.
• If you see child labour in any form anywhere, then make sure to point this out to the employer that it is completely unacceptable.
Recently, in South India I saw two cases of child labour in micro-enterprise creation projects run by a respected NGO which was completely committed to the ending of child labour in all its forms. The sad fact is that these were “demonstration projects” that the NGO wanted its visitors to see. When challenged, one employer said that the child was a foster son. But we saw the son well-fed and well-dressed and not working; whilst the so-called foster child looked surly and dirty. In a neighbouring street, we saw a sari embroidery factory with a young girl working, and were told that this is what she liked to do “for the company” after school. This shows how easy it is to con the casual visitor, and how hard it is to stamp,out the practice.
One thing to think about is what should children be doing after they have completed their primary schooling. The Millennium Development Goals seek universal primary education, but they and international NGOs are strangely silent on what happens after when young people are still too young to work in countries where secondary education is for the few who can afford it.
The GAP’s full 42-page report is on the company’s website: www.gapinc.com
Two international campaigns against sweatshops:
Sweatshop Watch, a US campaign against child labour: www.sweatshopwatch.org
No Sweat, a UK campaign against child labour: www.nosweat.org.uk
And three Indian websites of interest:
Child Rights Information and Documentation Centre: www.cridoc.net
South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude: www.saccsweb.org.in
Swami Agnivesh, a leading campaigner against child labour in India: www.swamiagnivesh.com