The Observer's undercover investigation that exposed child slavery inside Indian sweatshops subcontracting with Gap Inc. has once again cracked open the underside of the global economy for all our averted eyes to see. If you're like me, you know that child labor exists. You may even concede -- without losing too much sleep -- that the products of such labor find their way into your closets and cupboards. But this particular story, with little boys hand-embroidering items (for Gap Kids' Christmas line!), working 19 hours a day in deplorable conditions and suffering beatings and other gruesome punishments, strikes home in a particularly heart-rending way. It reminds us not only of the nasty network of child trafficking in faraway lands and the Gap's ethical shortcomings at home but of our own persistent, willful ignorance.
In the late '90s, the child labor controversies exposed many Western clothing manufacturers, including the Gap. In 2004, the Gap adopted what it calls "rigorous factory-monitoring" procedures and vowed not to contract with subcontractors that employ children. Since the scandal broke this weekend, the company has pledged to not use the clothing produced by the slave-trading subcontractors.
But this is pissing in a blizzard. Ironically, the Gap's policy didn't even stop the child labor in this specific case! In response to the Observer story, the local police didn't raid the sweatshop until reporters from the Telegraph, posing as buyers for a London boutique, talked their way into the factory, took pictures of the children and gave the photographs to the local police. (Talk about a good day's work!)
As much as I'd like to go ahead with my Christmas shopping and let the Gap's corporate policies do the dirty work of keeping our collective conscience clean, it's absurd to think that it or another other Western corporation can outsource with impunity to India or other countries with egregious child labor records and not end up participating in such a widespread phenomenon. Human Rights Watch estimates that 218 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 work in developing countries -- the vast number working in agriculture but also in a range of industries from manufacturing and mining to prostitution and war. According to the United Nations, one-fifth of India's GDP is produced by child labor. What's more, the realities of child slavery in India are already well documented in the 1996 HRW report "The Small Hands of Slavery: Bonded Child Labor in India." The Observer reported that sweatshop subcontractors have adapted to corporate policies by hiding children in sacks and mezzanine floors. As Bhuwan Ribhu of the Global March Against Child Labour told the Observer: "They should know by now what outsourcing to India means."
In the sad logic of the consumer economy, we are what we buy. As Ribhu reportedly told the Observer, if we stash the knowledge of child labor in a dark corner of our consciousness, we're bound to participate in it. "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 pounds for a hand-embroidered top?'" he reportedly said. "'Who made it for such little cost? Is this top stained with a child's sweat?'"