Child Labor at Harvest Rich in Bangladesh: companies still claim no evidence

December, 19 2006 Share

Wal-Mart, Hanes, J.C. Penney and Tesco are still claiming that they cannot find evidence that children ever worked at the Harvest Rich plant.


Main Harvest Rich campaign page

It does not surprise us that Wal-Mart, Hanes and J.C. Penney cannot find the child workers.  Afterall, as Hanes is now openly admitting, their factory monitoring efforts had failed them very badly for years.  They could not find the excessive overtime, fake timesheets, underpayment of wages, health and safety violations, harsh treatment of workers, and so on.

Today, the NLC is reaching out to the public and posting pictures of some of the child workers on our website, asking people to decide for themselves—and vote—as to whether they believe the companies, who say that these young workers are actually malnourished adults, or the children, who say they are 11, 12, 13 and 14 years of age.  At appropriate intervals, we will continue to post additional pictures of other child workers.

Also, we now have 11 in-depth interviews with child workers, and in some cases their parents as well, posted on the NLC's website.

Some of the child workers are clearly so young that Harvest Rich management could not dare attempt to turn them into malnourished adults, no matter how much they threatened the children to lie about their ages.  In one case, that of a small boy who could not be more than 10 years old, who was filmed with a hidden camera in the packing department at Harvest Rich by ITN Channel 4, management is now saying that the child did not work at the factory, but rather, was some neighborhood kid who was just delivering food to a relative.  The odd thing is that the child appears to be holding a needle and thread in his hand.  Also, Harvest Rich is situated inside a walled compound, with locked metal gates and heavily armed security guards.  No one can enter the factory without a proper company ID.

A different tactic had to be used with 11-year-old Halima, who has disappeared.  Perhaps Harvest Rich management threatened her and her family, giving them a few dollars to return to the countryside. 

After the NLC released its report on Harvest Rich and the Channel 4's story aired in England, management fired at least 100 child workers on October 19.  (You will see discussion of this in some of the attached interviews.)  The children were fired explicitly for being under-age.  It was only after we wrote Harvest Rich management warning them against the firings that they did an about face.  They re-hired some of the child workers, referring to them as "malnourished adults," and, after threatening the child workers and their parents, turned 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15-year-olds into 18 and 19 ½ year olds.   According to a set of talking points Harvest Rich managing director M.A. Bari took with him to a London meeting with Tesco, the confusion can be explained as follows:  "The Bangladeshi garment workers generally come from rural areas and represent the poorer sectors of society, where people are generally malnourished and age cannot be specified by eye examination."

It is interesting to note that back in 1990 a Bangladeshi factory owner told NBC Dateline the exact same thing:  that the children they had filmed with a hidden camera were really malnourished adults.  This is just on incident that is part of a long history of child labor in Bangladesh's apparel factories.  In November 2000, when a fire at the Chowdhury Knitwear factory killed 54 workers—unable to escape because they were locked into the plant—ten of those killed were children between the ages of 10 and 14.  On March 6, 2006, a similar fire killed seven girls aged 12, 13 and 14.

Further, in 2001, H&M found three children 13 years old and younger sewing their clothing at Harvest Rich.  It was one of the reasons they pulled out of the factory. Click here to read H&M's letter.

When Harvest Rich management found out about the meeting we were setting up on November 6 in Dhaka for the companies to meet with the child workers, all hell broke loose.  Every child workers mentioned in our report was threatened, along with their parents, and warned not to participate.  The night before the planned meeting, leaders from the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity were actually stopped and forcibly detained and threatened by Harvest Rich managers as the three were attempting to meet with the child workers.  The homes of the child workers mentioned in our report were under surveillance.

The fact is that every single worker who had anything to do with the research, interviews, outreach and even the meeting with the U.S. and UK companies, has been seriously threatened, and, in at least one case, severely beaten and robbed.  The current situation resembles a lockdown, and the young workers are terrified.  They have nowhere to turn for help and they know they are being watched.

The "District Civil Surgeon" that Harvest Rich management and the companies say had the legal authority to determine the ages of the child workers is a government-appointed position in each Administrative district.  Unfortunately, Bangladesh is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and it is rather routine to purchase opinions.  More importantly, our colleagues in Bangladesh have made contact with the forensic department of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, which confirms that only a forensic medical specialist, examining bone density along with other tests can approximate a worker's age.

In Bangladesh there is no institutional system of registering births.  Under these conditions, everyone has told us that short of a forensic examination, the best way to determine a child's age is to ask their parents.  Of course, these interviews have to be done in a safe location, surrounded by people whom the child and parents trust, which is what we did.  The interview results change a great deal when the parents and their children have been severely threatened and instructed as to what they were to say when they were interviewed—cross-examined—by the corporate executives.

So there is always some uncertainty in Bangladesh regarding the young workers' ages.  For example, Halima may be 10 or 12, not 11 years old.  Some of the workers might be 13 rather than 12, just as someone saying they are 13 could be 12—as appears to be the case with Shirina.  But the children and their parents could never be off by 5-6-7 years as Harvest Rich management and U.S. companies now are claiming.

(Putting aside for the moment the question of whether these young workers were 13 or under, the companies were still blatantly violating Bangladeshi labor law, which strictly prohibits factories from working 14 to 17 year-olds more than five hours a day, 30 hours a week or from having them work at night (between 7 pm and 7 am).  With so many young workers in the factory, this law is still being grossly violated on a daily basis.

Back in 1996, during the Kathie Lee Gifford child labor case, Wal-mart said the exact same thing:  that they had monitored the Global Fashion factory in Honduras for years and had not found any child labor.  Two months or so after their denial, they agreed that there were up to 130 child workers in the factory, and Wal-Mart immediately pulled out.  The only difference in that case was that there were stronger human rights organizations and local unions in Honduras, so the workers could not be so easily isolated and intimidated.  In Bangladesh, in the area where the Harvest Rich factory is located, independent civil society human, women's and worker rights organizations are basically nonexistent.

Click here to read the statement on child labor from the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, BCWS.