Nepal — Children of the Looms

What is life like for a carpet knotting kid in Nepal — and how can the carpet industry stay clean?

July 23, 2001

What is life like for a carpet knotting kid in Nepal — and how can the carpet industry stay clean?

Human rights and labor standards are key issues in any debate of trade and development. The exploitation of child labor is certainly at the heart of the human side of trade. In this Global Document, adapted from the Ford Foundation’s Spring 2001 Report, Suzanne Charlé explores attempts to rescue these “carpet kids” in Nepal, India and Pakistan.

Kathmandu — An orphan from an early age, Jhalak Man Tamang lived on his uncle’s small farm, where he took the family cow every day to the jungle. When Jhalak was ten, a family friend came by and offered to take him to Kathmandu, where the boy could go to school while working at his home.

Once in the city, the man broke his promise and sold Jhalak to a carpet master, who forced him to learn how to knot wool rugs on heavy wooden looms. Workdays started at 4 a.m. and went on until 11 at night. The earthen floor of the factory was Jhalak’s bed.

When the owner had a rush order, Jhalak and the other boys would have to work through the entire night. He never saw any money. He never had a chance to play except when electricity failed.

Jhalak is one example of an estimated 1,800 children under the age of 14 who are illegally employed by Nepal’s carpet industry. Most come from the rocky recesses of the Himalayas or the crowded, fertile fields of the Terai, where poor farms cannot support the growing population. Some youngsters find their own way to the factories, lured by dreams of new clothes, two meals a day and a chance to watch TV. Most, however, are forced into the industry by adults.

Virtually all of Nepal’s 1,000 carpet factories are located in Kathmandu Valley, an area roughly the size of London or San Francisco. 50,000 people work there as weavers. Another 100,000 are employed in carding, spinning, dying, washing, transport and other rug-related tasks.

The brightly colored prayer flags that ripple in the wind above simple brick buildings hint at the history and pedigree of the country’s carpet industry. Four decades ago, tens of thousands of Tibetans fled their homeland after a brutal invasion by Chinese troops.

Many refugees who settled in Kathmandu had left everything behind save one talent: the age-old technique of hand-knotting rugs used for prayer and covering doors and windows. Soon, a new industry was born, and today, carpets are Nepal’s #1 export, topping $135 million last year.

A year ago in April, an inspector employed by a non-profit organization called RUGMARK entered the factory where Jhalak was working. Aware of the possibility of such a surprise search, the loom master had ordered the kids to run and hide. All of them did expect Jhalak, who stood his ground.

The inspector explained the employment laws and offered the boy a chance to live at a rehabilitation center sponsored by RUGMARK. Jhalak gladly accepted.

Under the RUGMARK banner, carpet manufacturers and exporters in India, Nepal and Pakistan join with American and European importers and nongovernmental organizations to assure that no child labor is used in creating the beautiful hand-knotted rugs.

Factory owners and subcontractors agree not to employ children, and RUGMARK inspectors make regular, unannounced visits to make sure they comply. Those that do are given RUGMARK labels — each label with a number corresponding to the specific carpet made on a specific loom — assuring consumers in the United States and Europe that the carpets are child-labor free.

The fees paid by licensed exporters — 0.25% of the cost of the rugs — go to pay for inspections. Importers who join the program contribute 1.75%, which supports schools and staff.

Children found on the looms are either returned to their parents and sent to local schools — or placed in RUGMARK-sponsored rehabilitation centers and schools, depending on their educational backgrounds. Jhalak is one of more than 1,700 children rescued from the looms in India and Nepal since 1995. More than 1,200 are studying in RUGMARK schools and rehabilitation centers.

In Nepal, 120 exporters who manufacture 65% of exported carpets have signed on. In India, the program licenses 226 exporters, who sell rugs from 28,000 looms — over 15% of all those registered by the government. These exporters have shipped more than 2.1 million rugs bearing the RUGMARK label to Europe and the United States.

The India RUGMARK program, which was originally backed by UNESCO and the German Development Agency, is now self-sufficient. Nepal still receives funds from those agencies and the Asian-American Free Labor Institute.

The effort has been particularly effective in Nepal, where the number of children in the country’s carpet industry has dropped from 11% of the work force to less than 2%.

Police, frustrated by a slow bureaucracy, frequently give tips to RUGMARK inspectors about offending contractors. In both India and Nepal, workers rights organizations see the effort as one step toward ensuring that the jobs go to adults who can bargain for better wages. And back in the United States, RUGMARK is actively courting large chain stores to join the program.

This Globalist Document is adapted from Ms. Charlé’s Ford Foundation Spring 2001 Report.