Eyewitness Account: Child Labor in North India's Hand-Woven Carpet Sector

By Siddharth Kara

Indian Child Worker at RugThe carpet belt of North India stretches across the state of Uttar Pradesh from the town of Allahabad, east to Bhadohi, ending in the rural reaches beyond Varanasi. I have visited this area several times across the last decade, and despite recent pronouncements by the government of India that child labor no longer exists in the country’s hand-woven carpet sector, there are still innumerable shacks and village huts in this area in which children as young as 10 years of age are coerced to work 16 or more hours a day weaving carpets for export to Europe and North America.

All of these children are poor, low-caste or dalit peasants who are either paid a pittance for their efforts, or are exploited through outright bonded and forced labor. Children are especially prized for carpet weaving, as their nimble fingers and good eyesight are perfectly suited for the intricate motions required to weave carpets that may be 30 to 40 square feet in size, one thread at a time. 

At a shelter near Allahabad, I met 34 child slaves who had been freed from two different carpet shacks housing up to 20 children each. One of these young boys, Arjun (a pseudonym), remained deeply traumatized by the violence he suffered in one of these shacks. A dalal (trafficker) paid Arjun’s father 1,000 rupees ($22 US) and promised the child would earn 50 rupees [$1.11 US] per day in carpet weaving, half of which could be sent back to his parents. Arjun was subsequently locked in a shack with several other boys and violently coerced to weave carpets day and night, without ever being paid:

"Most days we were only given one break for eating and one break for toilet. If we tried to sleep, they would beat us. Sometimes they gave us pills so we can work all night. I felt so tired I cut myself often. If the blood from my fingers came on the carpet, they would take green chili and rub it on my wound for punishment," said Arjun.

Though hidden shacks that exploit child slaves in carpet weaving are not uncommon, the majority of exploitation in the carpet sector of North India takes place in small village huts scattered across the region. One village not far west of Varanasi typified what I saw.

The village possessed 34 huts of varying sizes (none larger than 150 square feet), each with around five to six inhabitants, all dalits. Twenty-eight of the huts had carpet looms inside them, usually taking up half of the available living space. Everyone in the village had borrowed money from two brothers who owned all of the land in the area. The reasons for the loans were myriad, to include basic consumption, life ceremonies (weddings and funerals), medicine, hut repairs, and the inheritance of debt from a previous generation.

Once indebted, each of the villagers was put to work as a bonded laborer Child Workers Indiain three sectors – carpet weaving, agriculture, and brick making. They were paid state stipulated wages (less deductions) by agents of the landowners who visited the villages regularly to ensure work was being completed on schedule. The villagers were not allowed to take any other work or leave the village. In the huts I documented, two or three teenage boys were typically at work behind the looms. In all cases, the huts were cramped and dark with no electricity. There was poor ventilation and a high level of particulate matter from thread dust in the air. Many of the child weavers were suffering from respiratory ailments, spinal deformation, vision ailments, and severe joint pain.

Whether it is in a village hut or a clandestine shack, carpets are still being woven by children in North India.  Poor, landless, disenfranchised and marginally subsistent minority castes and ethnicities remain deeply vulnerable to trafficking and debt bondage. Law enforcement intervention and rule of law are almost entirely absent, allowing wholesale carpet producers to capitalize on the vulnerability of impoverished peasants in countless ways, including the exploitation of low-wage or forced child labor for carpet weaving.

Claims that child labor in the rug industry exists because producers cannot afford to pay full wages are spurious. To the contrary – the typical carpet weaving business model produces more than sufficient profits to pay full and fair wages; however, greed drives exploiters to utilize bonded, forced and underage labor to maximize profits in full violation of the law. In my forthcoming book on bonded labor, I developed profit and loss statements for a “typical” carpet weaving business that employs 30 bonded or child laborers. Such a business can generate $952 in net profits per laborer on a net profit margin of 50.7 percent. At best, nominal or no wages may be paid to the carpet weavers, even though there is ample profit available to compensate them fairly.

This exploitation will not end until we negate the financial incentive for producers who act with impunity. GoodWeave offers a successful, replicable model for transforming the industry, by putting the power into consumers’ hands to hold producers accountable for their actions and by giving them the choice of a child- and slave-labor free purchase.

Siddharth Kara is a Fellow on Human Trafficking at Harvard University, and author of Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. His research into the hand-woven carpet sector of South Asia will be included in his forthcoming book on bonded and child labor in South Asia, to be released in Fall 2012.

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At the age of five, Manju was already working on the rug looms. While she has since been found and freed from illegal carpet work, some 250,000 children throughout South Asia still toil in obscurity. Through GoodWeave nearly 3,600 kids like Manju have been rescued, rehabilitated and educated, and thousands more deterred from entering the work force.

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