MALNOURISHED and underaged, thousands of children are working in India's carpet industry as virtual slaves to their employers. With daily earnings as little as 34 cents, some children have worked at the looms since the age of 6, according to the Anti-Slavery Society, based in London.
The exploitation of child labor in Indian carpetmaking, says the society, is only one example among many of the enslavement of workers around the world.
``A conservative estimate of the total number of `slaves' is 100 million,'' the society's vice-chairman, Charles Swaisland, told the British Parliament recently.
In its most recent report to the United Nations, the society said that many countries have laws banning slavery, but they are impossible to enforce. Under conditions of indebtedness, food shortages, poverty, and civil war, various forms of slavery are common. Labor-intensive industries in developing countries - such as textiles, carpetmaking, tea, and palm oil production - encourage the exploitation of children who often work for low pay in conditions unacceptable to adults.
``Most people don't know it's happening, and even when they're told, they find it difficult to believe,'' said Peter Archer, a member of the British Parliament.
The United Nations expanded its definition of slavery in 1956 to include more than chattel slavery or outright ownership of one person by another. The new definition includes child exploitation, where a child under the age of 18 is delivered by his parents to another person for work, whether for reward or not, and debt bondage, the pledging of labor for an unspecified period to pay off a debt.
The Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1839, calls itself the world's oldest human rights organization and works to expose slavery wherever found. In its report to the UN last August, the society claimed babies are being kidnapped in Thailand and smuggled into Malaysia, where they are sold for less than $2,000. Kidnapping is also reported in Sudan. According to the society, 400 Dinka tribespeople were abducted by militiamen in the southern Kordofan region between 1986 and '88, sold for between $20 and $50 each, and now work as farm laborers and house servants.
IN the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where the society recently found a high incidence of child labor in the carpet industry, the society is working with local government to prevent child exploitation. Without income from children, many Indian farming families find it difficult to survive, particularly when harvests are poor. Realizing that economic necessity drives children to work, the society has started a relief project there.
Another organization fighting debt bondage is the Bonded Liberation Front, led by a former Indian minister of education, Swami Agnivesh. Debt bondage can start with a loan or supply of food. If that cannot be repaid, the lender demands work as repayment. Rates of interest are usurious, and often a whole family is trapped into working for the lender. Children sometimes inherit these debts from their parents. Mr. Agnivesh says that his organization recently won the release of several laborers from a debt going back eight generations. He says the estimated number of bonded laborers in India is about 5 million.
One country trying to end chattel slavery is Mauritania, in West Africa. It has invited critics to visit the country and recommend solutions.
Chattel sales of children occur openly in Bangkok. In early May, a reporter from a British newspaper bought a 12-year-old girl for $220 and then handed her over to a child welfare officer for protection. The newspaper says that its exposure of this slave trade has forced a crackdown by police in Thailand and in Laos, where many of the children are smuggled from.
``We are marking our 150th anniversary,'' says Alan Whittaker, secretary to the society, ``not celebrating it.''