The US government is concerned about the possibility of child labour in Indias garment firms

The US government is concerned about the possibility of child labour in India's garment firms

The inclusion of clothing from India on a US government list of products possibly manufactured using child labour is potentially disastrous for the country’s apparel industry – but the issue remains one of daunting complexity.

For the record, the announcement yesterday (19 July) from the US Department of Labor (DOL) puts “garments” from India on the final Executive Order 13126 list, a confirmation of its inclusion on the provisional list last September.

According to the DOL, the official status of garments of Indian origin is among “products, by country of origin, which the Departments of Labor, State and Homeland Security believe might have been mined, produced or manufactured by forced or indentured child labour”. There are 29 products named on the list, from 21 countries.

What does this mean? Technically, not that much. According to the law, federal contractors must certify that any listed products they buy have not been produced with forced or indentured child labour, while there appear to be no such formal constraints on companies in the private sector.

Reputational risks
But Indian apparel exporters and the country’s Textile Ministry are far more concerned with the broader reputational risks posed by the inclusion – and they have their eyes on another list due for publication in September this year.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorisation Act also named Indian-sourced clothing on its provisional list last September, and it is due for an update in two months’ time. A repeat appearance on a list designed to combat people trafficking would be unwelcome indeed.

The risks are clear: big-name garment buyers, especially volume retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Gap and others, will be reluctant to take a chance, fearing the kind of consequent negative publicity that has become all-too-common in recent years. Instead, they may elect to take their business elsewhere.

As such, it’s no surprise that India’s government and private sector are falling over themselves to persuade the US that things are moving in the right direction on the sub-continent.

The Textile Ministry is working on an informal grading of textile units, joining forces with exporters to encourage factories to clean up their act – and to be seen to do so.

More time and money is being devoted to investigating cases of suspected child labour – all over and above the common compliance code being devised by the Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC), which aims to address ethical issues from child labour to environmental concerns.

What’s more, India maintains that there is no forced child labour in its garment industry, and takes issue over the perceived lack of consultation, the way in which the lists have been compiled and the general lack of clarity in the process.

The lobbying has been fierce, with a US law firm engaged to help the government to plead its case in the US.

But the publication of the Executive Order 13126 list makes it clear that India still has some persuading to do if it is to be given a clean bill of health by the US authorities.

Can it achieve this by the time of the publication of the TVPRA list in September? Time is getting tight, and the stakes could be very high indeed.