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

Publisher Name: 
Chronicle Foreign Service

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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