The Indian government seems, yet again, to be making an ass of itself over child labour in the garment industry.
Readers of this blog will be aware that we have long been critical of India's complacent, insular and frequently downright deceitful behaviour about child labour in clothing factories. Belatedly, its government and its garment makers have woken up to the threat now posed to garment businesses' future: but they appear to have fundamentally misunderstood the threat and what they need to do about it.
India is currently threatened by two quite different US government investigations. By taking only one seriously, it is in effect conceding it will fail to pass the second – and missing the point of the investigation it claims to be taking seriously
Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the US has stepped up pressure against the use of child labour in imported goods, and its government agencies are currently making existing legislation bite harder. How exporting countries react to this pressure may well influence future legislation. In February 2010, its Department of Labour (DoL) sought public comment on two lists it is required to draw up.
- A list required under the 1999 Executive Order No. 13126, which prohibits federal agencies from acquiring products produced by forced or indentured child labour. On July 20, the DoL produced its "definitive" list, which includes :
- garments from Argentina, India and Thailand, and
- cotton from Benin, Burkina Faso, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and
- embroidered textiles (zari) from India and Nepal
Inclusion on this list means Indian garment manufacturers cannot sell to the US federal government. But hardly any do. And even if India can disprove the used of forced child labour, this list creates problems for Indian businesses its government has not even touched. The list also bans the use of Uzbek cotton – which India's Spentex publicly boasts about. And nowhere in India's programme to deal with the problems posed by Executive Order 13126 is there any mention of monitoring the use of Uzbek cotton.
In any case, none of this deals with the other threat to India:
- The list required under the 2005 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of products made by child OR forced labour. This list does not ban anyone from doing anything: it merely requires the DoL to work with producers of the goods on the list to set standards to eliminate child or forced labour and to work with other U.S. government agencies to "ensure that products made by forced or child labor are not imported into the United States".Garments from India are on the list published in September 2009: the DoL has not yet released its updated version.
But India almost certainly cannot avoid being on this list when it is published – or indeed for some time. However often spokespeople for its government and the garment industry deny child labour, Indian government inspectors report its existence and major factories have failed to deny allegations of its use
It seems virtually certain that India will be on the new TVPRA list, because it is irrelevant to this list whether child labour is forced or not. But its government seems determined to focus on a quite different allegation.
But there is a bigger threat still on the horizon. America's Customs Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Reauthorization Act of 2009 is still under debate in Congress, but if passed – and many legislators support it – adds significantly to the possibility of an outright ban on importing goods made with any kind of child labour, forced or otherwise.
Since all this sank into the brains of India's garment makers and rulers, there has been a raft of initiatives by businesses to deal with the problem – which, in fairness, affects a very tiny proportion of India's garment workforce. But those initiatives started in May and June: they cannot disprove the existence of as problem, but merely stress that the industry is finally doing something to eliminate it. Too many in the industry are still obsessed with what America is doing wring in all this – which merely emphasises how out of touch those people are.
India starts off the battle for public sympathy in the West with a huge set of advantages. Unlike most of Asia outside the subcontinent, English is widespread: unlike Sri Lanka it has a robustly free press, unlike Pakistan it has no real tradition of authoritarian rule and unlike Bangladesh it is a comfortable place to visit. Activists, by and large, look for ethics infringements in India only after they have fully researched the possibility of infractions elsewhere.
But, once activists begin to suspect a country, the likelihood of self-fuelling damaging stories grows massively. Lobbying governments and legislatures does nothing except enrich the lobbyists: once mud has been thrown it sticks somewhere, and cannot be negotiated away.
In India's case, the mud has now been flung. Is it too late to stop it sticking in its garment factories' international reputation?