Gap Threatens India's Clothing Boom

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Saurabh Das / AP

Child rights activist and lawyer Bhuwan Ribhu, center bottom, talks to child workers during a raid at a sweatshop.

The Gap clothing chain has withdrawn a line of embroidered blouses and ordered an internal investigation after a news report alleged that the garments were stitched by children in a Delhi sweatshop. Sunday's edition of Britain's Observer splashed an undercover investigative report across two pages, alleging children between 10 and 13 worked in conditions "close to slavery" in the factory producing blouses bearing Gap labels. Gap, which has 200 of its 2,000 suppliers in India, was quick to order a recall and an investigation, while calling a meeting with suppliers to reiterate its no-tolerance policy on child labor. "Under absolutely no circumstance is it acceptable for children to produce or work on garments. It's a non-negotiable for us," Gap's senior vice-president for social responsibility, Dan Henkle, said in a statement.

The allegations may have come as a shock to Western readers accustomed to stories about India's rise as an economic power, but for most Indians child labor is a well-known reality — either uncomfortable or necessary, depending on which part of the social spectrum one belongs to. Indian law prohibits employment of children under the age of 14 in professions deemed hazardous, which covers 13 occupations and 57 processes, including the garment, mining, hospitality and domestic sectors. But between 75 and 90 million children continue to be part of the labor force in India.

"Everyone knows factories in Shahpur Jat use child labor — it's an open secret," says Puja Sahu, owner of a fashionable boutique in the area where the Observer reporter allegedly found the sweatshop. Shahpur Jat lies in the southern part of Delhi and houses grimy, dimly lit sweatshops behind plush, high-end boutiques. On Monday, there were no children working in the unit that had reportedly been making clothes for Gap, but several children were seen embroidering clothes in a number of other factories. Sahu says trained embroiderers and tailors are paid between $110 and $150 a month, whereas "children can be employed for less than half of this, sometimes for no money at all if their parents have sold them off."

The Indian government tried to downplay the issue and none of the ministries in whose domain it has arisen has commented. It was left to Commerce Minister Kamal Nath to react to the report. According to the Times of India, Nath said the allegations would be probed, while warning developed countries against using allegations of child labor as a pretext for taking protectionist tariff measures. Children's rights activists, however, see the latest allegations as typical of the problems associated with India's economic rise, where growth is prioritized over social equity. Pradeep Narayan of the non-profit Child Rights and You says, "Policies on liberalization, privatization, trade, export-import, et cetera get implemented very fast and very effectively. But the policies on the social sector, like health or child labor, never do."

On Monday, the Confederation of Indian Industry released a report predicting a 12% increase in the sourcing by foreign companies of clothing and textile production in India. In 2008, clothing and textile production in India for foreign brands is projected to be worth between $22 billion and $25 billion, as Western producers come in search of lower production costs that enable lower retail prices in the boutiques of the industrialized world. The cost to India of its neglect of social issues may begin to rise sharply, however, if the Gap recall deters other Western brands from sourcing their production to India. In the competitive apparel retail markets of the industrialized world, after all, the potential loss of market share as a result of a clothing label being tainted by any association with child labor would almost certainly outweigh any cost advantages in turning a blind eye.