The Gap: New Frontiers in Child Abuse

It was enough to make you vomit all over your new denim jacket. The Gap has been caught using child labor in an Indian sweatshop, and not just child labor--child slaves. As extensively reported on the news, the children, some as young as ten, were worked sixteen-hour days, fed bowls of mosquito-covered rice, and forced to sleep on a roof and use over-flowing latrines. Those who slowed down were beaten with rubber pipes and the ones who cried had oily cloths stuffed in their mouths.

But let's try to look at this dispassionately--not as a human rights issue but as a PR disaster, ranking right up there with the 1982 discovery of cyanide in Tylenol capsules. Think of this as a case study in a corporate Crisis Communication course: How is The Gap handling the problem, and could it do better?

This is not the first time The Gap has been caught using child labor, but CEO Martha Hansen went on the air to state that the situation was "completely unacceptable" and that the company would "act swiftly." Two problems here: One, she failed to detail the actions. It would have been nice, for example, if she had announced that some of the top-producing child slaves would be reassigned to manage Gap outlets in American malls, and that the under-performers would be adopted by Angelina Jolie.

The other, more serious, problem is that she got defensive about child labor. This is the mistake Kathie Lee Gifford made in 1996. When accused of using child labor in Honduras to manufacture her Kathie Lee line of clothing, Gifford broke into tears on TV. Maybe Hansen meant to cover herself by saying that The Gap would not "ever, ever condone any child laborer making our garments" rather than saying the company does not condone child labor itself. We already knew, from the rubber pipes and oily cloths, that The Gap does not condone much from its child laborers.

Hansen underestimated the potential support for a full-throated defense of child labor. More and more American children are tried and punished as adults today. And the ubiquitous conservative pundit William Kristol will surely be enthusiastic, considering his recent--though possibly facetious-- statement that "whenever I hear anything described as a heartless assault on our children, I tend to think it's a good idea."

The core of the argument, though, is that anyone who opposes child labor has not witnessed its opposite, which is child unemployment and idleness.

Hansen claims to be a mother herself, but I wonder how often she has returned home from a hard day in the C-suites to find her unemployed offspring Magic Marker-ing the walls and crushing the Froot Loops into the carpet. This is what jobless children do: They rub Crazy Glue into their siblings' hair; they spill apple juice onto your keyboard. Believe me, I see this kind of wantonly destructive behavior every day. Vandalism is a way of life for unemployed children, and they do not know the meaning of remorse.

In fact, corporate America should go further and make a strong statement against the sickening culture of dependency that has grown up around childhood. Why are jobless children so criminally inclined? Because they know that whatever damage they inflict, the Froot Loops will just keep coming. The Gap should portray its child-staffed factories as part of a far-seeing welfare-to-work program, which will eventually be extended to American children as well.

To appeal to American parents, our own child factories should be run more like Montessori schools, where the children are already encouraged to regard every one of their demented activities as "work." If they're going to pile up blocks and knock them down all day, then why not sew on buttons and bring home a little cash? But even American families will have to brace themselves for the inevitable cost-cutting measures. First the cookies and milk may have to go, then, as in India, the toilets and beds. Wal-Mart has already pioneered the price-cutting defense of human rights abuses, and The Gap should follow suit.

The company can of course expect some lingering opposition. Just as there are vegetarians and pacifists, there will always be some men, for example, who would rather wear skirts than blue jeans impregnated with the excrement and tears of ten-year-olds. Well, let them shop at American Apparel or some other "sweat-free" vendor, and if they can't find anything there, let them wear dhotis. In a nation that cannot bring itself to extend child health insurance (SCHIP) to all children in need, child-made clothes make a fine fashion statement. And why not accessorize your denim jacket with a scarf derived from one of those oily cloths stuffed in weeping workers' mouths?

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