The Child Labor Dilemma
By CATHRYN JAKOBSON RAMIN
Starting in 1975, in order to build up India’s rug-making industry, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi established government schools to train children to weave. Those schools, built in traditional carpet production areas, quickly turned into factories that “recruited” poor, lower caste children to fill seats at the looms. Within a few years, exports had quadrupled, but at significant cost. “Recruitment” translated into child trafficking, with tens of thousands of small children sold into slave labor and forced to work in miserable conditions.
The evolution of child slavery in the carpet industry, at the hands of Indian government agencies, is rarely mentioned in studies and reports on the topic. When these discussions do occur, they typically begin with an incident that occurred in 1993, when a Pakistani child carpet slave, Iqbal Masif, made international news.
Masif was sold at the age of four, and kept in chains for 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, until he escaped. He became a folk hero, receiving human rights awards and giving speeches. Rug exporters, fearing a global boycott of their products, tried to silence him. Masif was assassinated in 1995, precipitating the formation of multiple non-governmental agencies focused on ending child carpet slavery. Just as exporters had feared, Indian carpet sales plummeted.
WHAT’S IN A LABEL?
A former engineer named Kailash Satyarthi became a leader in the effort to remove child slaves from carpet factories. He started the RugMark Foundation, dedicated to eliminating illegal child labor. For a fee, RugMark provided independent inspection and certification of carpet exporters’ supply chains. Exporters who were members paid RugMark a quarter of a percent of the value of each carpet, which allowed them to put the RugMark label on their carpets. Importers also paid RugMark a fee (1.75 percent of the rug’s import value)—a relatively painless expense if it paved the way to a sale to a wary customer.
In 2009, things went awry for RugMark when it was discovered that the supposedly transparent Indian supply chains were corrupted. The graft was so deeply entrenched that RugMark was no longer a viable certification program. Satyarthi and his team de-listed every Indian supplier, rebranded itself as Goodweave International, and shifted headquarters to the U.S.
This brought a new set of problems: Indian carpet exporters did not like having their operations governed by a foreign hand; there were disparities between Indian law and international law in terms of child labor; and some exporters felt that the restrictions Goodweave imposed were culturally inappropriate. They accused the organization of failing to distinguish the difference between a child who was learning the craft at her parent’s knee, and one who had been sold into carpet slavery.
RESCUING 4,000 CHILDREN
To make matters worse, subcontractors became very good at shifting malfeasance out of the sightlines of Goodweave’s inspectors, setting up loom-sheds and factories in increasingly remote and rural regions. In his report, “Tainted Carpets,” Siddharth Kara wrote of workplaces that were “cramped, filthy, unbearably hot and humid, imperiled with stray electrical wires and rusty nails, filled with stagnant and dust-filled air, and contaminated with grime and mold.” Children suffered from numerous health ailments, including “eye disease, loss of vision, spinal deformation, pulmonary disease, beatings, abuse.” Kara estimated the number of child slaves in India at 38,000. Based on his findings, support for Goodweave’s mission grew, and more importers and exporters were willing to pay for the organization’s exonerating blue and gold label.
Unfortunately, rescuing child rug slaves wasn’t enough to solve the underlying problem. As long as artisans were paid starvation wages, they could not extricate themselves or their children from poverty, and children would continue to be sold. In response, Goodweave set up social programs, including ashrams where abused children could receive the medical and psychological help they needed. To date, Goodweave has removed almost 4,000 children from supply chains that retailers thought were clean.
Satyarthi soon became well-known in international aid circles. In 2014, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with the young activist Malala Yousafzi. He dedicated the prize to the industry’s young, assassinated hero, Iqbal Masif.
There’s no question that Goodweave does good work, so it bothered me, more than a little, that Jaipur Rugs Company, founded by N.K. Chaudhary, had never joined its certification program. It also bothered Scott Welker, director of business development at Goodweave.
When I spoke with Welker, he explained that he’d sat down many times with JRC’s principals, but they always came up with “a reason du jour” not to join. The latest, Welker said, was that JRC believed that Goodweave was the instigator of Siddharth Kara’s 2014 report, and that the report had been designed to boost donations to the organization. “That’s not true,” Welker said with a sigh.
When I asked Kara to comment on this (second-hand) allegation, he was horrified. In an email, he wrote, “I cannot see how a rigorous and objective effort to gather core data on conditions of workers in the sector, under the protocols of the Harvard Institutional Review Board, which oversees studies involving human subjects, could possibly lead to harm to those workers, contrary to unsubstantiated allegations you may have received.”
Welker acknowledges that it’s not always straightforward to ascertain, from a legal perspective, if a child is working with his relatives or has been sold into forced labor. And sadly, due to a family’s constrained circumstances, a child who has been rescued and rehabilitated may be sold again.
Although it was not against Goodweave’s policies for children to work with their families after school, there were many parts of Rajasthan, Welker said, where there were no schools, or where the “teacher” could not handle fifth grade math, or simply did not show up. It was a fantasy, he said, to think that kids who live in remote villages were getting decent educations.
I pestered Chaudhary and his team relentlessly about their puzzling policy decision. Repeatedly, they explained that it was unnecessary for JRC to pay for independent certification of their supply chain, because from the outset, the company was structured to eradicate the many ills that led to parents selling their children in the first place. The profits that would have gone to Goodweave were already invested in JRC’s social programs, and that is where the money would stay. Chaudhary also has little faith that Goodweave can judge conditions accurately. [For more detail on this point, see the main story, “India’s Rug Saint.”]
On the question of child labor, I interviewed Madhu Purnima Kishwar, an eminent professor at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, based in New Delhi. “It is not child labor, but child exploitation that’s the problem,” she said. “I am against the employment of children in sweat shops, or as bonded slaves in factories. But children learning the traditional crafts of their parents while living with their families, in their own homes, where they have a chance to also attend school, is a very good idea because they are picking up valuable, marketable skills along with that schooling.”
Echoing Welker’s remarks, Kishwar observed in an email that school, and even college education in India, “rarely enables youngsters to become employment worthy. And the unemployable youth get lumpenised very easily, especially if they have been cut off from traditional skills and occupations of their parents.” (Lumpenised, Kishwar explained, comes from the German term lumpenproletariat, to describe a disenfranchised population that leans toward unruly behavior.) “By contrast,” Kishwar wrote, “youngsters learning the crafts under the direct care of their parents have closer family bonding, are far more emotionally stable, and don’t get into high risk-behaviors, such as taking drugs or gravitating toward crime.”
Furthermore, Kishwar said, “almost all our crafts require a high degree of concentration and aesthetic sensibility. Both these qualities make for better human beings.” The most pertinent question in all of this, she added, “is not whether children are working. It’s whether families engaged in weaving are living a dignified life, with fair wages that allow them to provide a decent education for their children.”