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Unraveling child labor from hand-made rugs: Q&A with Nina Smith of GoodWeave

Nina Smith talks about how the GoodWeave label on rugs assures consumers that no children were employed, and how that's changing child labor practices globally.

By Leora FridmanDowser.org / April 20, 2011

April 16th marks the anniversary of the death of Pakistani rug-slave-turned-activist Iqbal Massih who championed work against child labor and inspired the work of GoodWeave, a market-based solution to child labor in South Asia’s textile industry. The GoodWeave label on rugs assures consumers that no children were employed in its making and that the product was certified by GoodWeave’s rigorous licensing process.

Robin Romano (2007) www.RomanoPhotography.com

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April 16 marks the anniversary of the death of Pakistani rug-slave-turned-activist Iqbal Massih who championed work against child labor and inspired the work of GoodWeave, a market-based solution to child labor in South Asia’s textile industry. The GoodWeave label on rugs assures consumers that no children were employed in its making and that the product was certified by GoodWeave’s rigorous licensing process.

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GoodWeave-certified producers comply with an extensive certification standard and undergo monitoring of their facilities. Importers of GoodWeave textiles pay a small royalty fee that GoodWeave and partner organizations use to educate and rehabilitate former child weavers. Below, Dowser talks with GoodWeave executive director Nina Smith about the organization’s holistic approach and how it seeks to honor Iqbal’s memory.

Dowser: What role did Iqbal’s story have in inspiring you to work against child labor?

Smith: I had a background in international news media and early on in that career took an extensive trip through Latin America, where I had some personal experiences with low income indigenous women weavers who were desperate to sell their work. A light bulb went off for me that something was wrong with the system if people like me might pay far less to someone than it should really cost for them to be paid fairly. That led me into thinking about a business to link producers of goods to the end users who buy them, and to try to tell the stories of people who make products to consumers to help them make equitable choices. At that point in the early 1990s the fair trade movement was just getting started, and I got involved with them. I was offered a job to work in India with Tibetan refugee producers in India making crafts. After about a year there I came back and got further involved with the fair trade organization to figure out what my role could best be.

I read the story of Iqbal in a Vanity Fair article in 1994 right after his murder and we were just getting launched under the name of Rugmark, and it reminded me that there are serious labor rights and human rights abuses in supply chains. I thought the model being developed here was really perfect because it’s working against a focused issue (child labor) in a focused marketplace (carpets and textiles) with consumers you can easily communicate with.

RELATED: Bangladeshi women wins rights for child workers

How has GoodWeave evolved as an organization?

Our recent re-brand is a physical manifestation of our evolution toward a holistic antipoverty model. In the early days no one was doing what we did and we were developing and improving a model, but as time went on we could work more on bringing transparency and rigor to the work on the ground we do, and how to make this work owned by all stakeholders. We couldn’t just work on child labor in a void – it’s so intertwined with other labor issues so forced labor, wage issues, health and safety issues, and even environmental issues. We’ve developed a new certification standard that looks at six other issues beyond and intertwined with child labor.

What do you think are the primary drivers of child labor common in the areas where you work? Which of those drivers can GoodWeave work against and which are more difficult to change?

Many issues are intertwined and changing within child labor and we have to – and do - work with all of them. The key drivers are poverty – because parents can’t afford to put food on the table or educate children they do things out of desperation, like taking a loan against their child –, lack of access to education, and political unrest and the bigger issues it drives. The global economy effects labor in so many ways. Right now in Nepal people are so desperate for sustaining jobs that make workers are going overseas to the Middle East and Nepal itself is actually lacking in skilled weavers, which makes them more likely to take on children. Consumers in the United States are buying cheaper products and countries that have always produced higher end products are losing market share. The key thing that we do is we decidedly remove demand for products made by child labor, and issues can be solved when we remove demand.

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