Child workers, some as young as 10, have been found working in a textile factory in conditions close to slavery to produce clothes that appear destined for Gap Kids, one of the most successful arms of the high street giant.
Speaking to The Observer, the children described long hours of unwaged work, as well as threats and beatings.
Gap said it was unaware that clothing intended for the Christmas market had been improperly subcontracted to a sweatshop using child labour. It announced it had withdrawn the garments involved while it investigated breaches of the ethical code imposed by it three years ago.
The discovery of the children working in filthy conditions in the Shahpur Jat area of Delhi has renewed concerns about the outsourcing by large retail chains of their garment production to India, recognised by the United Nations as the world's capital for child labour.
According to one estimate, more than 20 per cent of India's economy is dependent on children, the equivalent of 55 million youngsters under 14.
The Observer discovered the children in a filthy sweatshop working on piles of beaded children's blouses marked with serial numbers that Gap admitted corresponded with its own inventory. The company has pledged to convene a meeting of its Indian suppliers as well as withdrawing tens of thousands of the embroidered girl's blouses from the market, before they reach the stores. The hand-stitched tops, which would have been sold for about £20, were destined for shelves in America and Europe in the next seven days in time to be sold to Christmas shoppers.
Despite its charitable activities, Gap has been criticised for outsourcing large contracts to the developing world. In 2004, when it launched its social audit, it admitted that forced labour, child labour, wages below the minimum wage, physical punishment and coercion were among abuses it had found at some factories producing garments for it. It added that it had terminated contracts with 136 suppliers as a consequence.
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