Saving the children: The dark side of handmade rugs

A nonprofit group is fighting to get children out of rug factories in South Asia...

More than 800 producers have pledged to use only adult workers, and more than 1,000 retailers are selling rugs that are certified to be free of child labor.

Forced to work illegally as carpet weavers at various rug factories in Kathmandu, Nepal, Sanita Lama and Jaya Bhandari describe grim experiences from their childhood.

To help pay off the debts of her parents, Lama quit school and began working at age 8. Bhandari started at age 9. For two years, Lama says, she toiled at the loom for 13 hours a day, hand-knotting strands of carpet yarns in a dust-filled room. Bhandari describes chronic breathing and eye problems after his long shifts. Both say they withstood beatings and scolding at work.

Lama and Bhandari, now 20, were rescued in 1999 by the RugMark Foundation, which crusades against child labor in South Asia’s carpet industry. Founded in 1994, the international nonprofit organization aims to eliminate the use of children in rug mills in India, Nepal and Pakistan. Through its rescue and education programs, RugMark helps these youths mend their broken childhoods.

Now with its Most Beautiful Rug campaign, RugMark aims to increase consumer awareness of child-labor issues. In advertisements that began running last year, RugMark encourages shoppers to buy only carpets it has certified as free from child labor, “because an imported rug that was made using child labor is ugly no matter what it looks like,” the ads say.

“We are talking about globalization, the knowledge economy and biotech in the US,” says Kailash Satyarthi, RugMark’s founder. “But child slavery still exists in the world.” Satyarthi believes that these practices can end if more American shoppers request child-labor-free rugs.

Shoppers in the US and Canada can find RugMark-certified carpets at more than 1,000 retail locations. The rugs are imported from the 529 factories in Nepal and 290 in India that have pledged to use only adult workers. RugMark’s goal is to increase the North American market share of certified carpets to 15 percent, up from the current 5 percent. “Then we will truly impact industry practice,” says Nina Smith, executive director of RugMark.

All rugs sold by Carpets of Imagination (www.acarpets.com), a custom-rug company in Petaluma, Calif., are manufactured in Nepal by a RugMark licensee. Owner and designer Alicia Keshishian aims, among other things, to debunk the myth that only children’s small fingers can weave intricate carpets. “Would you let a 10-year-old paint the wall in your house?” she asks. “Likewise, craftsmanship comes with age and experience.”

Smith agrees and adds that strong hands are often needed to tie the knots. Children are used to drive down the costs, she says.

International laws and treaties prohibit use of child workers under age 14, but many countries fail to enforce the rules. An estimated one in six children in the world works illegally, and nearly 300,000 are exploited in the carpet industry, according to studies by UNICEF, the United Nations International Labor Organization and the US Department of Labor.

RugMark founder Satyarthi, an Indian labor rights activist, began the organization after learning that children he was rescuing from illegal rug mills were being sent back to the factories. He decided to devise a better strategy-and create a label certifying that carpets are child-labor-free.

Rescued child weavers are sent to one of RugMark’s 13 facilities in India and Nepal. At these schools and rehabilitation centers, the former carpet kids can receive free education until they turn 18. Children over 14 are offered vocational training. To date, more than 3,172 children have been rescued.

To ensure that licensed factories comply, RugMark’s five inspectors conduct random inspections. Raids are launched at unlicensed sites if RugMark suspects underage children are being used.

While other child-labor-free labels exist, RugMark claims that its independence-it doesn’t manufacture carpets-gives its label more credibility. Some of the other labels have been initiated by the companies and governments themselves, “thus eliminating the prospect of an independent audit mechanism,” Satyarthi says.

A year ago, Barbara Jacobs, a carpet designer in Medfield, Mass., went to India to scout out a manufacturer for her new line of hand-knotted Tibetan rugs. When the factory manager she met could only offer a verbal promise that the rugs would not be tainted with child labor, she chose to work with a Nepalese licensee of RugMark. The group’s certification provides quality assurance, Jacobs says. “I want to tell my clients about the label, and I’m able to stand behind it.”

Not all dealers are so eager to discuss the issue. Keshishian, the carpet retailer, says her outreach efforts are sometimes met with resistance from industry professionals who don’t want to talk about the dark side of carpet manufacturing. “I heard merchants saying, ‘Why did you tell your customers?’ ” she says. “You will make everybody question how all the carpets are made.”

That’s exactly what RugMark is hoping to do. To that end, Lama and Bhandari toured the US last year to tell their stories. They do the same thing in Kathmandu, where they visit carpet factories and urge child workers to speak up for their rights. “If we can keep our hope, why can’t others?” Bhandari asks.