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.
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.
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.
How does changing consumer demand alter labor conditions?
In many ways. A company may stop buying rugs unless they are child-labor free. Consumers drive their demands for fair labor practices back onto the market. The more we can license companies into our system, the more certified products there are to sell, and the more funds we can generate for our rescuing and education programs for former child workers which streamline children into local school initiatives and ideally deter them from the sector.
What do you mean when you say you rescue a child from child labor?
When a company licenses the GoodWeave certification they agree to operate under our random inspections – three strikes against them and they lose the certification. Most of the children we rescue are identified when a company first joins us. When child labor is found in any of our locations the children are removed and provided with opportunities and choices so that they can go right into rehabilitation programs which are run by local partner NGOs.
I understand that child labor in the handmade rug industry is down 75% since you began your work. What are your metrics for GoodWeave's success and how have you measured them thus far?
First we measure success in the marketplace by the uptake of our certification in the business community. 15-20% market share of the total industry would mean success to us, and we’re measuring our market growth year to year. We also look at the kind of actors that are adopting us. It used to be smaller high end rug companies but it’s changing. We’re launching publicly at Macy’s in a few months, which feels like a huge success for us.
Do the changes in your partner companies reflect your goals and reflect an interest in this kind of certification?
The initial companies to sign on with us were those predisposed to social responsibility, and we did feel that going for companies at the high end of the market was very important because it was the products people saw as the highest quality. Over time we’ve watched larger, more complicated companies sign up. Those take longer and need a stronger business case to come on board. We’ve gotten to the point where we can demonstrate a clear business case for GoodWeave and show evidence that it helps sales and at minimum it doesn’t hurt. We’re moving into a space where we’re getting companies that are motivated much more purely for business reasons; for risk mitigation factors, because all their competitors are doing it, or because consumers actively want it.
What are the biggest obstacles you face in your work and how do you work to overcome them?
We want to grow but a scaling plan always needs to be focused on insuring integrity and quality. We’re about to receive some funds to go into Afghanistan, which is an important rug-producing country that could use the work that we do. This will be a real value-add for the products coming from Afghanistan. Still, working there is going to be a challenge to keep it to the same standard as other places where we work.
There are still a lot of big players out there in the textile industry that aren’t getting involved in this work, and if they did it would make it a lot easier. One other challenge is that there’s so much need in the communities that we work in that we can’t fulfill. We think that if we can shift the demand to child-labor-free products we can eventually change individual lives, but at the same time we’re working one-on-one with children in tough situations who are aging out of our system. We’re looking to partner and improve on how we can help them move on to college or the next thing.
What does remembering Iqbal on April 16th mean to you?
Iqbal’s story moved me to the point of wanting to work on this and prevent other children from being in bondage as child labor. He escaped child labor and started becoming an activist for other children still on the looms. He won the Reebok human rights award in the early 1990s and [was] murdered for his activism when he returned to Pakistan. He’s a true martyr for this cause. Telling his story reconnects me emotionally to this cause and helps me remind other people why this work that we do is so important. There are about 250,000 children working today the way that Iqbal did. Faces and stories and names are what really connect people to issues, and remembering Iqbal reminds me why I do what I do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.