Indian carpets: cheap and beautiful. But what many do not realise is that they have been made by children as young as six working 12 hours a day. Paul Donovan chooses Christian Aid Week to focus on a latter-day slavery scandal
"THE CHILDREN OFTEN cut themselves with the heavy knives used to slice the wool after each knot is made in the carpet. Many children reported that masters would scrape the powdered head from a match onto their wounds and set it aflame to cauterise the skin. In this way they would ensure that the boy did not bleed upon the carpet."
From Pulling the Rug on Poverty: Child Workers in the Indian Carpet Industry by Eileen Maybin, Christian Aid, 1994.
As THE WORLD approaches the 21st century, children as young as six sit working at looms for 12 hours of each day. The children (mostly males) work in unhygenic conditions knotting wool to make carpets for sale mainly in northern markets. The reward for one desperate boy who tried to escape the loomshed was a bullet in the back from an armed guard.
Carpet-making was introduced into India by Mogul princes in the 16th and 17th centuries, but fell into decline due to the poor quality wool and Iran replaced India as the major carpet-producing centre. Ironically, it was the efforts of the Shah of Iran in . the 1970s to promote universal literacy that led to the outlawing of child labour. The replacement, adult labour, proved more costly and resulted in the centre of carpet production returning to India, where child labour was still used.
Today there are some 55 million child labourers in India, of which 300,000 are involved in the carpet indus
try. 85-90 per cent of this production is to be found in the north-eastern state of Uttar Pradesh. In 1989, according to the International Labour Organisation, the international market in handknotted carpets and rugs was valued at $2,089 million. The US and Germany absorb 60 per cent of the market for domestic use. Britain buys one fifth of the carpets produced in the region.
The majority of child labourers are drawn from the "Dalits", the class of persons previously known as the "untouchables" and regarded as outside the Indian caste system. Abject poverty is the main cause of children being drawn into slavery.
A system of debts and debtors effectively ensures the separation of children from their parents. Loom-owners offer a cash advance to the parents for the services of their child. Once the child has been transported hundreds of kilometres away from home, the "advance" transforms into a "loan", with accompanying exhorbitant rates of interest. Other deductions include living costs and the imposition of penalties relating to the performance of each child.
Mahendra Chowcihury was a ten-year-old bonded labourer until he was rescued by the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude. Originally, Mahendra's father had received a 500 rupee advance (around £11) for the services of his son.
By the time, some 18 months later, that Mahendra had been located by his father some 200 kilometres away, the advance had become a loan and the loom-owner demanded 5,000 rupees (£110) interest. It was four years before Mahendra was rescued, by which time his father had died.
Mahendra's experience was not untypical. Working 12 hours a day broken by just one short break to eat in a dilapidated shed that measured 14 feet by 10 feet, the boys received only two small meals a day of rice and lentils. Visits to the toilet were accompanied by an escort, in case there was any attempt made to escape. According to one observer, the combination of enforced isolation, hard work and an unhealthy environment left the children dull and apathetic as well as sickly. Regular beatings for not working hard enough also formed part of the seven-dayweek routine.
Kailash Satyarthi, chairperson of South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS) works across the region to stop child slavery. The idea of a regional focus is intended to combat any shift of the production base (as happened between Iran and India in the 1970s).
SACCS has a two-pronged approach which combines international campaigning for a fair trade "rugmark" (see below) with direct action to free children trapped in loomsheds. Over the last decade 5,000 children have been released by these clandestine raids, but Kailash believes that in the same period another 100,000 have been lured into the industry.
Over the past three years, German NGO's have been supporting a campaign to put pressure on shops to stock only carpets made by adults. Christian Aid and Anti-Slavery International have been supporting this campaign in Britain and Ireland.
Kailash Satyarthi outlines a vicious circle of poverty caused by child labour and sees an economically-based rationale behind shifting carpet production from children to adults. Children obliged to work are being forced to forfeit their educations. They cannot develop physically due to long, monotonous hours in unwholesome conditions. Illiteracy and lack of skills mean that when the children become adults and produce their own families, they in turn become dependent on their own children's labo r. SACCS argues that ere
every one of the 55 ion children in employm nt replaced by an adult, his would reduce unemplo ent and improve conditions for family life and the nati nal economy of India. Chil ren would be able to att nd school and receive an ed cation which would make em more able to contribut to both their own family an the national economy more e i ec tivelY•
A campaign has •een launched with the ai of developing a child-frie dly labelling system known as Rugmark. The label would only be applicable to adult hand-made rugs and carpets. Negotiations on the Rugmark came to a halt in March 1994 due mainly to intransigence on the part of the two main carpet manufacturing exporters, Obeetee Private Limited and E. Hill and Company. Kailash Satyarthi believes the talks collapsed when the threat of legislation banning goods made via child labour was removed (US senator Tom Harkin had introduced draft legislation in the area of child servitude at this time). The US Department of Labour is currently preparing a report on industries worldwide which use child labour. The European Union has threatened a ban on goods produced by child labour.
A number of NGO's are concerned that a ban on child-produced products could be used effectively as pmtectionist device to guard Western business interests rather than Asian children. SACCS, Anti-Slavery International, Christian Aid and NGO's from Germany all support the introduction of the Rugmark. "Strong British support for a Rugmark would help to make it unprofitable to exploit children, creating desperately-needed jobs for adults," says Michael Taylor, Christian Aid's director. "A percentage of the import value of each `rugmarked' carpet could be used to establish a fund to help rehabilitate children released from the carpet industry."
For the present, Kailash Satyarthi and his colleagues continue to raid loom-owners and so treat the symptoms of child slavery. But the cause to be found in northern markets requires another approach.
For further information, contact Asia Pacific Section, Christian Aid, Inrerchurch House, Lower Marsh Street., London. Tel 071620 4444.