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Gap Child Labor Controversy

November 5, 2007  |  Share

Ten-year-olds sewing Gap Kids clothing:
Unfortunately, It will happen again.

By Charles Kernaghan

Would GAP knowingly seek out 10 to 13-year-old children being held as bonded laborers in India to sew its children's line of clothing—Kids who were forced to work 16 hours a day for no wages and beaten with rubber hoses?  No, of course not.  But will it happen again?  Yes.  And it will happen to other companies as well.

GAP uses up to 2,700 contractors worldwide, mostly in developing countries like India, where wages are low and labor rights enforcement weak to nonexistent.  To protect itself, GAP has some 100 social auditors to monitor their contractors' plants.  Often, factories are checked just once or twice a year, and audits are almost always announced in advance.  Either way, every single worker knows that if they dare speak one word of truth to the auditors, they will be immediately fired.

But the situation is even worse, since contractors often subcontract work—as happened in India—to other factories in order to cut costs.  GAP is not alone here.  Look at this summer's massive toy recall by Mattel in China, where Mattel admitted it had lost control and did not even know in which factories its toys and toy parts were made.  Toxic toys and abusive sweatshop conditions under which they are made are two sides of the same coin.

In 2006, the National Labor Committee found GAP clothing being sewn in Jordan by foreign guest workers who were the victims of human trafficking, held as indentured servants, stripped of their passports, forced to work 16 hours a day, cheated of their wages and beaten.  Some young women reported being sexually abused.  We have found 11 and 13-year-old girls in Bangladesh forced to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week sewing clothing for Wal-Mart, while being paid just six cents an hour.  These girls were beaten when they fell behind on their production goals.

Unfortunately, child labor will be around for a long time to come unless these conditions change. As things stand now, the GAP label is protected, but not the young girl who made it.  Corporations like GAP and Matttel have demanded and won all sorts of enforceable laws, backed up by sanctions, to protect their trademarks and products.  However, they continue to block passage of similar laws which would protect the legal rights of the 16 year old girl, claiming this would be an "impediment to free trade."  Nothing will change as long as the label is protected, but not the human being who made it.

Secondly, the American people would be shocked if they knew how pitifully low the labor cost is to make a garment.  For examples, workers in the Dominican Republic are paid just eight cents for each $22.99 Nike children's sweatshirt they sew.  This is typical, since the cost to sew a garment in the developing world rarely exceeds one half of one percent of the garment's retail price.  A high level executive at a GAP rival once told me:  "We may look rich around here—but we kill for pennies."  Every year, GAP, Mattel and the other companies demand pricing cuts from their suppliers in the developing world.  GAP's contractors are not angels, so they turn to the weakest link—the workers—to force them to produce more and more, for ever-lower wages.  More and more corners are cut as work is subcontracted out.

It does not have to be this way.  Legislation has been introduced by Senator Byron Dorgan and Congressman Michael Michaud—The Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act—which will, for the first time, hold companies accountable to respect fundamental, internationally recognized worker rights standards, including prohibiting forced and child labor.

GAP, Mattel and other companies which refuse to even release the names and addresses of the factories they use in countries like China and India to make the goods they want the American people to buy, must stop hiding their contractors' plants.  GAP, along with Mattel, should lead the way in supporting (rather than blocking) legislation that will finally guarantee respect for human and worker rights in the global economy.  Companies must also realize that this constant drive to cut production costs is, in fact, what is driving child labor, toxic toys and sweatshop abuse.

Finally, GAP cannot walk away from these 10 to 13-year-old kids who were so terribly abused while sewing their garments.  GAP owes these kids, every one of whom should be freed and given a stipend sufficient to support their families as the children go back to school where they belong.



Watch the CBS Story on the Gap's Child Labor Abuses

Read about the Anti-Sweatshop legislation currently going through the House and Senate


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