India Battles Illegal Child Labor but Previous Efforts to Protect Youth in Carpet-Weaving Industry Have Failed

Article excerpt

THE Indian government recently began a crackdown on the use of child labor in the carpet-weaving industry. But critics are skeptical of the plan succeeding.

The government-run Carpet Export Promotion Council this year established a mandatory inspection program called Kaleen. In October, the government randomly checked looms for illegal child labor and began punishing loom owners not adhering to the law.

The plan is financed by a small tax on exporter sales. Exporters complying with the program will sew a Kaleen label onto their carpets to show consumers no child labor was used. In a separate effort, the government plans to open special schools and provide small stipends to help child laborers pay for books and supplies.

Because consumers in Germany and the United States are increasingly concerned about the child-labor issue, the success or failure of the Kaleen program could help determine the future of the industry, which earned $607 million in foreign exchange for India in 1994.

"The government is determined to do away with any illegal use of child labor by the end of the century," says Textiles Minister G. Venkat Swamy.

So far, the Carpet Export Promotion Council indicates that about 2,300 exporters will use the Kaleen label. Random checks of looms have reportedly led to deregistering 42 looms so far.

Weavers skeptical

But carpet weavers have seen past government crackdowns come and go. Raja Ram, a carpet weaver for 45 years in the town of Khamaria, says government inspectors are easily bribed.

"If they get money," he says, "the inspectors say there was no child labor. If there is no money, even if the boy is 18, they write he is only 14."

About 300,000 children between the ages of 6 and 14 work at making carpets in India, according to the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, a child-advocacy group. Hand-knotting carpets is a labor-intensive, cottage industry, mostly done by weavers at home or in small workshops. Traditionally, children learn the rug-weaving trade from their parents, beginning at age 15.

But some children begin much younger. Their nimble fingers allow them to tie small knots. The more knots per square inch, the finer the carpet - and the higher the price. But their fingers can suffer injury from the constant knot tying and from the knives used to cut the yarn. Children's eyesight also can be damaged by poor light and constant strain.

Indian law distinguishes between legal child labor at home and the illegal employment of children younger than 14 outside the home. Working conditions may deteriorate quickly when children labor in workshops. In some cases, labor contractors pay parents a fee, promising to get their children carpet-weaving jobs.

These children, known as bonded laborers, face the worst conditions, being virtual slaves to unscrupulous loom owners. …