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Little victims of Indian fashion

Working for minimal or no wages, these children put in 12-hour days in squalid conditions to create designer products sold in India and abroad.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2006 07:22 IST

In a clandestine corner of the city, dingy lanes lead to the kaarkhana, a sweatshop really, where seven-year-old Javed has been working for the past two years. Wearing soiled clothes and standing in filth and refuse, Javed can still muster the spirit to smile from ear-to-ear when asked to pose for a photograph.

Javed is one of the faceless and voiceless five lakh odd children who put in 12-hour days to create spectacular handbags, designer clothes and sparkly shoes that are then sold in fancy stores or exported out of the country. “The younger kids do not get paid because they are still learning. They are happy to get just food and shelter,” says 11-year-old Shahid. “I get Rs 150 a month for my work because I am experienced.” Shahid works in a zari kaarkhana in Garhi, behind Central Market, Lajpat Nagar.

Posing as a fashion student, this reporter discovers that the room is filled with children, all from the same village in Bihar. Most children working as embroidery kaarigars in the Capital have been trafficked from Bihar, Jharkhand and Bengal. “A man from our village was working in Delhi and he brought us here one by one, promising us good pay,” says seven-year-old Yasir who works in a laakh kaarkhana in Shakur Ki Dandi close to the Ramlila Ground.

The sweatshop owners claim they don’t know who the ultimate buyers are. A factory owner says since each product passed through several middlemen ; he did not know who the ultimate buyer was. “Transactions cannot be documented. We make a mental note of how much stock is being given to us. Middlemen do not tell us which shop or designer they work for because they fear we will directly approach them,” he said.

In 2003, an international company that sources many of its products from India decided to check out if child labour was involved in its own manufacturing. It discovered that more than 60 per cent of its work was outsourced to smaller factories that employed child labour. The company held back cheques and revised production lists.

“Most companies and designers don’t know that their work is being given to children. They don’t proactively enquire about the details. They have a clause included in their contract that children should not be employed and their responsibility ends there,” says Junned Khan of Butterflies, an NGO.

Many of the products made at the city’s kaarkhanas are exported to Europe and the Middle East. Export rejects are found in markets like Janpath. “My brother is an exporter. We send purses and gowns to Italy. Many companies give us work. They are mostly located in Okhla and Noida,” says a factory owner in Ghonda village, near Seelampur.

“Unlike the government enforcing agencies, traffickers are very organised. We have conducted many raids and rescued children many times. But there is no rehabilitation and children come back to factories seeking work,” said Rishikant, a social activist working with a local NGO, Shaktivahini.

Children like Javed are promising artists under training who could challenge designers four times their age when it comes to mirror and thread work. But their ‘offices’ are unlike ours. Paint from the walls is peeling, the stench of refuse fills your lungs and innocent screams are drowned under the noise of sewing machines.

Rescue efforts

Activists point out that the government’s intention might be good, but if the law is not effectively enforced, the city will have more children on the streets, begging.

In November 2005, the Labour Department, together with local NGOs rescued 500 children employed in the zari industry. That was the last major operation conducted by the department.

The Delhi government did not have funds to feed the rescued children. Nor could the state government provide the children a suitable shelter. “NGOs pooled in Rs 5 lakh for food and the children were put up at central government’s August Kranti Bhawan since we did not have any other place to keep the children. The state government has not yet returned the money spent on food to the NGOs,” elaborates Junned Khan.

The government needs to collect data through mass rapid surveys in the next three months. “The easier thing to do would be to implement the Shops and Establishment Act, and immediately seal the factories. Penalise the owners and raise funds,” adds Rishikant.

First Published: Aug 26, 2006 07:22 IST