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INDIA: Many rescued child laborers in India soon back at another dismal job

by Heidi J. ShragerChronicle Foreign Service
December 23rd, 2007

New Delhi -- A group of child laborers recently rescued from a dank factory where they threaded sequins onto shirts to be sold by the San Francisco
retail giant Gap Inc. finally went home last week.

But in a country long desensitized to minors toiling in iron ore
mines, fireworks plants and textile factories, the majority of
children freed in raids wind up at another job within months of their
rescue, according to several children's activists.

A 2006 report by the Child Welfare Committee found that 12 of 22
children from a village in the impoverished eastern state of Bihar
were re-trafficked, mostly to different states, within a year after
being rescued from a Delhi hand-embroidery sweatshop.

"They go back to the parents, but then what?" asked Bharti Sharma,
chairwoman of the Child Welfare Committee, a quasi-governmental body.
"Unless there is close supervision, the children will be going back to
work."

Rights groups estimate there are as many as 60 million children
working in violation of the Child Labor Act, which prohibits children
under 14 from working in 72 jobs, ranging from cutting diamonds and
shelling cashews to blowing glass. New occupations are still being
added, including domestic work and jobs in restaurants and hotels.

There are myriad reasons children get sucked back into the labor
cycle, activists say. Poor parents are ignorant of the law and seduced
by promises that their child will master a trade while sending home
ever-higher paychecks; illiterate child laborers lack the confidence
to start school; government rehabilitation and monitoring programs are
only now being implemented; and natural disasters.

In fact, the parents of the children rescued in the Gap case told
their attorney that severe floods destroyed their crops in their West
Bengal villages, leaving them with no choice but to send their
children to work in the capital.

Many Indians believe children and their families would be worse off
without such jobs. Seeing a child serve tea in restaurants, tea
stalls, hotels and corporate offices "should be shocking," said
Shireen Miller of Save the Children India. "But there's a kind of
cultural tolerance toward it; there isn't outrage."

Miller's point was brought home early this month when two 10-year-old
boys were seen on videotape plowing in Bihar state on fields owned by
the minister for rural development.

The high-profile rescue at the sweatshop making Gap clothes in October
was followed by rescues of 103 boys from two other textile factories
in New Delhi.

The sweeps have jolted the Indian government and Gap.

Government officials have since drawn up a child-labor eradication
plan, promising regular audits in such labor-intensive export
industries as textiles, carpets and jewelry. They have also pledged a
large funding increase from $170 million to $1 billion for
rehabilitation centers that offer informal education and vocational
training to rescued minors.

On its Web site, the Ministry of Labor acknowledges the challenge,
calling child labor a "socioeconomic problem inextricably linked to
poverty and illiteracy," that "requires concerted efforts from all
sectors of the society to make a dent."

A Gap spokesman says a New Delhi subcontractor sent the work to an
illegal, makeshift facility without Gap's knowledge. Gap ordered the
vendor, who they declined to name, to fire the subcontractor who had
employed the children in violation of the company's policies. Gap has
also placed the vendor on probation, reduced orders to his factory by
50 percent, and is organizing an industry forum called Global March
Against Child Labor early next year, according to Bill Chandler, Gap's
vice president of corporate communications.


"Gap Inc. believes very strongly that under no circumstance should
work on any of our garments be done by children," said Chandler. "We
require all of our vendors to comply with our strict code of conduct
that includes an absolute ban on child labor."

Gap says it will donate $200,000 to create community centers in India
that will closely monitor the 200 garment factories that manufacture
their products to ensure that no child is hired.

Some of the boys who hand-stitched sequins onto Gap shirts were as
young as 10 and worked up to 16 hours a day, rights activists say.
Many had been packed into tiny rooms in a series of factories, working
from 9 a.m. until midnight with just a 30-minute lunch break, and were
beaten with rods if they missed a stitch, activists say.

All were reunited with their parents last week after spending six
weeks in the custody of the nonprofit organization Save the Childhood
Movement, while a New Delhi court reviewed their case.

The court had initially refused to allow the parents custody of their
children after learning that they had personally delivered them to the
factory administrator, said attorney Ashok Agarwal. He said he agreed
to represent the parents only after they promised to protect their
children from future traffickers.

On a recent afternoon at the Save the Childhood Movement shelter, the
boys became reacquainted with their childhoods, climbing trees,
playing cricket and watching television. They also practiced yoga,
meditation, and attended counseling sessions conducted by former child
laborers.

"The children have to learn how to be free," said shelter manager
Manish Sharma.

When the court finally ordered the boys home, it gave each family $500
to be used to generate income by purchasing items such as livestock, a
motorized rickshaw or a cigarette vending cart. S.K. Das, the
principal secretary of the West Bengal Labor Department, said local
officials work with families to devise an income plan, which must be
approved before payment.

But children's activists say there is little follow-up after most
payments.

The 2006 Child Welfare Committee report found that "families exhausted
all the money in a few days. Children have obviously not benefited at
all." Activists said families typically use the money to for such
items as ceiling fans, alcohol, weddings and unpaid debts.

Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer for Save the Childhood Movement, says his group
will visit every few months the boys who left the sweatshop
manufacturing Gap clothes. But without an effective government
rehabilitation system in place, he says it is impossible to insulate
them from traffickers who are often residents of the same village.

Individual states are responsible for enforcing child labor laws,
creating a fragmented and disorganized system in which blame for
inaction is traded back and forth between state and federal
governments, rights advocates say.

This summer, the Delhi High Court ordered local government to stop
traffickers from bringing out-of-state children to the capital after
the northern state of Jharkhand argued that New Delhi has done little
to stop it. The Delhi Labor Department is woefully understaffed, with
only 50 inspectors for a workforce of 8 million, said a department
official who requested anonymity because he is not permitted to speak
on the record.

"We are supposed to implement 26 labor laws with merely nine people,"
he said. "And the inspectors are not qualified. Their understanding of
the legal issues is poor."

Most of the boys swept up in the raid on the sweatshop producing Gap
clothes were under age 14 and earned less than $15 per month in a
nation whose annual per capita income is $3,600. But when they arrived
at the shelter, they recited phrases that their bosses had drilled
into them - that they were 14 (the legal working age) and earned
decent money, said attorney Ribhu.

Mohammed Nadim, 15, who was recently rescued after working two years
in a garment sweatshop in New Delhi, smiled uncomfortably when asked
why he had left home. "I went with the man (trafficker) to earn
money," he said.

Reached by phone at his village in Bihar state, his father, Mohammed
Tohid, contradicted his son, saying he found his own way to the
factory.

"I know he is too young to work," he said. "I know he's a child. But
if he wants to work, he can."




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