Tip-off led to our child slave-labour shame story

The story of how The Observer came to run our Gap sweatshop exclusive is a straightforward one of a tip-off, some solid, tenacious reporting on the ground, and a little bit of the all-important right-time, right-place luck.

Our reporter Dan McDougall had been based in Delhi for two years, travelling around much of Asia. He left behind a staff job at a Scottish daily to try his hand at freelance reporting and ramraided his way into The Observer foreign news pages.

By this year, when he started putting a lot of his energies into investigating sweatshops and bonded labour, Dan was among our most prolific foreign correspondents. The sweatshop was becoming a bit of a bugbear for him personally and he began nurturing contacts in the manufacturing industry.

In April, we published the first of his investigations – this time it was a major UK company, Select Fashion and Birmingham-based fashion label, Roman Originals, which were linked to some deeply unsavoury child worker’s conditions. Both firms immediately cancelled contracts with the sub-contractors concerned.

However, the risks of Dan’s investigations were increasing. Employing children under 14 is illegal in India and, although irregularly policed, it gives the unscrupulous reason to keep a low profile. On one occasion Dan and a photographer – who remains in India and does not want his name used for fear of reprisals – were chased through the back streets of Delhi and beaten up by a sweatshop owner’s thugs.

Last month Dan rang in to say he had had a good tip from one of his Indian sources and wanted to investigate. He didn’t realise how good the story was at first. The boss was not at the premises and he managed to get access. It was when Dan was about to leave that he spotted the blue label. He had stumbled on an unauthorised sub-contractor supplying Gap. Dan knew what Observer lawyers would expect so he took a garment as evidence as well as video footage and photographs.

It was evidence which helped in the tense days before publication. The Observer’s senior lawyer Jan Johannes was involved from the start and Dan came back to London to request a meeting with the firm. It gave Gap Inc five days to respond. The company took the evidence we gave it seriously – Dan had lengthy phone calls and finally a ‘face-to-face’with the firm on the Thursday before publication, when Gap flew in a representative from India. Gap’s European head of press offered him a meeting and a trip to California – he refused.

The impact of the story was extraordinary. On the Sunday, we ran a news story and a double-page spread. It revealed a direct link between clothing sold by Gap and a sweatshop in Delhi where bonded child labourers worked long hours in horrible conditions. It made headline news on the BBC and dozens of column inches in other newspapers. By the Thursday we had lost track of the international follow up.

Regarded as both a PR catastrophe and a success in damage limitation for Gap Inc, most importantly perhaps was the reaction in India, where it raised not just headlines but also questions for the Indian government.

The Indian interior ministry made a statement and a series of police ‘raids’on sweatshops across India, during which 650 children were freed from bonded labour, while Gap Inc has promised to change their practices and introduce a ‘child labour free’labelling.

The furore raised by The Observer’s sweatshop investigation was encouraging – there are few foreign stories which carry such a direct link into people’s lives in the UK. The contrast between the power of the consumer here with the powerlessness of the workers producing our food and clothes could not be more striking. Around 250 million children aged from five to 14 around the world work, 60 per cent of them in hazardous conditions.

Tracy McVeigh is foreign editor at The Observer

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