Gap launches inquiry into child labour claims

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The Independent US

The high street clothing chain Gap has called an emergency meeting with suppliers to investigate new allegations of forced child labour being used in the manufacture of their clothes.

Gap has barred thousands of clothes in transit to their shops amid fears that children in India as young as 10 were making them. An article in The Observer said children were beaten and made to hand-sew clothes in 16-hour days, often for no wages.

Many children were "bought" from their parents, and worked only for food and board. They were not allowed to leave until they had repaid the purchase fee in work. One child spoke of being beaten with a rubber pipe if they did not work hard enough; others said oily rags were stuffed in their mouths if they cried.

Gap said it was unaware that clothes for the Christmas market, on their way to Europe and America, were made by underage workers. The company has stopped all work on the order and withdrawn all problem garments from stores.

The international chain, with more than 3,000 shops, claims that only one range of clothing from the sweatshop in Delhi was made using child labour. This was an embroidered girl's smock blouse for Gap Kids. The children hand-stitching the beads were not paid, but the garment would have sold for about £20.

Dan Henkle, Gap Inc's senior vice-president of social responsibility, called the allegations "deeply upsetting". He said: "Our team in India is conducting a full investigation and we have already made sure the products will never be sold. Although violations of our strict prohibition on child labour are extremely rare, we are calling for an urgent meeting with all suppliers in this region to reinforce this policy."

Gap has made a concerted effort to improve its image as an ethical company. But the revelations of sweatshop labour will add fuel to those who have campaigned to stop Gap outsourcing large contracts to the developing world. To keep critics at bay, the fashion chain launched its first major social audit in 2004. That revealed abuses by 136 suppliers, including child labour, physical punishment and forced labour. All of these contracts were severed and, in the past year, a further 23 suppliers have had contracts terminated for abuses. Gap's clothes are supposed to comply with a stringent policy where all workers must be over 14, or above the legal working age. Outsourcing labour to Asia, where wages are cheaper, and labour laws less stringent, is increasingly popular for Western fashion chains. Martin Herason, campaigns co-ordinator at the charity, Labour Behind the Label, said: "You'd find these labour problems in the supply chain of any company outsourcing to India. Gap is making more of an effort than many."

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