By  on June 12, 2008

In October, Gap Inc. came under fire with the disclosure that children as young as 10 worked in a sweatshop in India to produce children's goods for the chain. Gap took responsibility and said a manufacturer used an unauthorized subcontractor. The retailer, among other steps to rectify the situation, said the product would never be sold. These efforts continue, as indicated in the following Op-Ed letter, "Ending Child Labor," coauthored by Marka Hansen, president of the Gap brand in North America, and Sen. Thomas Harkin (D., Iowa), a leader on eradicating the worst forms of child labor and chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education. The letter recognizes International Day Against Child Labor, celebrated today, and was provided exclusively to WWD.

Six years ago, the International Labor Organization (ILO) designated today, June 12, as one to reflect upon the critical issue of child labor around the world. As representatives of government and industry, we have a responsibility to make a difference. But our actions alone are not enough. We can help lead, but others must join us in working to change attitudes and practices around the world.

According to the ILO, there are as many as 218 million child laborers worldwide. For many industries, child labor is an unfortunate and unnecessary reality, as Gap knows very well. The company contracts with vendors to make its clothes, and these vendors agree to Gap's strict code of conduct, prohibiting child labor and ensuring fair treatment of workers. Launched more than a decade ago, Gap has a rigorous system with its own employees regularly visiting factories to ensure compliance. Yet, even with these safeguards in place, Gap's system failed last year.

In October 2007, one of the company's vendors, in violation of its contract, placed embroidery handwork in a facility in which children were working. The news coverage contained scenes that sickened us all — children in a developing nation making clothes for children in the Western world.

This situation represents the challenges faced by the entire apparel industry in monitoring how clothes are made.

Gap remains committed to addressing these challenges in its own supply chain, including partnering with local and global civil society organizations to develop a strategy and process for monitoring the working conditions under which handwork may be performed. Gap Inc. has committed to third-party monitoring of the handwork supply chain and we have seen it work in other industries — such as with RugMark and in the U.S. soccer ball industry — and believe that the more companies that participate within an industry, the greater the ability to drastically reduce child labor in the garment sector.Some have asked, why not simply stop doing business in countries that supply or support child labor? While this might sound like an easy solution, it would turn a blind eye to children suffering under child labor in those countries. In almost every country where child labor is found, there is also a high rate of adult unemployment — it is those workers that need to be put to work.

So, what can be done? We must partner and bring corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations, trade unions and other stakeholders to the table. Working with us, the U.S. Department of Labor and the ILO are organizing a unique forum in India to help other companies guard against the use of child labor by their suppliers.

This will be a step forward in creating a road map of policies and procedures for all clothing manufacturers. By creating a common set of guidelines, we can ensure that if Gap or other responsible companies discontinue production in a factory that is breaking the law, another apparel company does not step in to fill the void and allow the violations to continue.

Continued progress in combating child labor across the apparel industry will require industry-wide guidelines and constant vigilance to ensure that those guidelines are honored. Consumers want and deserve to know that the clothing they purchase is coming from companies that refuse to tolerate exploitative child labor in the workplace. As we observe this year's International Day Against Child Labor, we pledge to work every day to eradicate this scourge.

— Marka Hansen, president of the Gap brand in North America, and Sen. Thomas Harkin, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education

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