India Battles Illegal Child Labor

But previous efforts to protect youth in carpet-weaving industry have failed

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. They work long hours, sometimes chained to the looms, in return for meager food and a floor space on which to sleep.

Because the practice is blatantly illegal, child-advocacy groups have a hard time determining the number of bonded laborers. But they estimate as many as 10 percent of children in the industry work in bonded or other abusive situations.

As a result of these kinds of abuses, the carpet industry and the Indian government have been under tremendous international pressure to eliminate child labor. Consumer groups, environmentalists, and child-advocacy groups in Germany have launched major campaigns, threatening to boycott Indian carpets if changes aren't forthcoming.

In response to that pressure, some Indian carpet exporters established the Rugmark Foundation last year. Inspectors for the exporters visit workplaces looking for illegal child labor. If exporters buy from loom owners employing only legal labor, they receive Rugmark labels to be sewn into each carpet.

Past program failed

But Rugmark has been a failure, a possible indication of the Kaleen program's future, according to Ram Achal Maurya, an owner of Prasad Carpet Emporium in Khamaria. Mr. Maurya says the Rugmark system is corrupt, and the labels are available without workplace inspection.

''The main aim is to get [favorable] publicity,'' Maurya says. Exporters using Rugmark ''are not interested in the welfare of the children.'' As the ultimate proof that Rugmark isn't working, Maurya says that his brother, the president of Rugmark, is unable to certify that his own carpets are made without child labor.

A rival group of German and Indian businesspeople started Care and Fair, a charitable program aimed at providing alternatives to the children of rug weavers. They ask carpet importers and exporters for a voluntary percentage of their profits to help build schools and hospitals. They argue that if children have other viable alternatives, they won't work at home.

Care and Fair has built a school and a clinic and is helping fund a small hospital. Care and Fair has a budget of $750,000 for 1995, according to Hari Malavia, president of Care and Fair India. But such efforts are a small strand in the enormous fabric of Indian poverty. Ram Dhani, a carpet exporter who supports Care and Fair, says charity can't supplant what government officials should do. ''They could set up more schools and alternative programs,'' he says. ''They could crack down on the use of bonded labor.''

Carpet dealers in the US say a successful crackdown will be crucial for them as well. ''It's a moral and economic issue,'' says Leon Mayeri, owner of Persian Mercantile Company in Berkeley, Calif. ''If the problem isn't halted, it can ultimately undermine the public's confidence in the entire industry.''

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