Asia and the Pacific

25 July 1995

Testimony of the Honorable Dan Burton of Indiana
in the US House of Representatives

Mr. BURTON of Indiana: Mr. Speaker, much attention was appropriately focussed on human rights abuses by the Indian Government against minorities in Kashmir and Punjab during recent consideration of H.R. 1868, the foreign aid appropriations bill for 1996. However, there exists another little-known human rights problem in India, which is every bit as grave. This problem, which received little discussion, is the exploitation of child labor. The United States Government and the international community have paid little attention to the prolific employment of young children. It is time to attend to this neglect.

Child labor in India is a grave and extensive problem. Children under the age of 14 are forced to work in glass-blowing, fireworks, and most commonly, carpet-making factories. While the Government of India reports about 20 million children laborers, other non-governmental organizations estimate the number to be closer to 50 million. Most prevalent in the northern part of India, the exploitation of child labor has become an accepted practice, and is viewed by the local population as necessary to overcome the extreme poverty in the region.

Child labor is one of the main components of the carpet industry. Factories pay children extremely low wages, for which adults refuse to work, while forcing the youngsters to slave under perilous and unhygienic labor conditions. Many of these children are migrant workers, the majority coming from northern India, who are sent away by their families to earn an income sent directly home. Thus, children are forced to endure the despicable conditions of the carpet factories, as their families depend on their wages.

The situation of the children at the factories is desperate. Most work around 12 hours a day, with only small breaks for meals. Ill-nourished, the children are very often fed only minimal staples. The vast majority of migrant child workers who cannot return home at night sleep alongside of their loom, further inviting sickness and poor health.

Taking aggressive action to eliminate this problem is difficult in a nation where 75 percent of the population lives in rural areas, most often stricken by poverty. Children are viewed as a form of economic security in this desolate setting, necessary to help supplement their families' income. Parents often sacrifice their children's education, as offspring are often expected to uphold their roles as wage-earning members of their clan.

The Indian Government has taken some steps to alleviate this monumental problem. In 1989, India invoked a law that made the employment of children under age 14 illegal, except in family-owned factories. However, this law is rarely followed, and does not apply to the employment of family members. Thus, factories often circumvent the law through claims of hiring distant family. Also, in rural areas, there are few enforcement mechanisms, and punishment for factories violating the mandate is minimal, if not nonexistent.

Legal action taken against the proliferation of child labor often produces few results. Laws against such abuses have little effect in a nation where this abhorred practice is accepted as being necessary for poor families to earn an income. Thus, an extensive reform process is necessary to eliminate the proliferation of child labor abuses in India which strives to end the desperate poverty in the nation. Changing the structure of the workforce and hiring the high number of currently unemployed adults in greatly improved work conditions is only the first step in this lengthy process. New labor standards and wages must be adopted and medical examinations and minimum nutrition requirements must be established in India. Establishing schools and eliminating the rampant illiteracy that plagues the country would work to preserve structural changes. However, these changes cannot be accomplished immediately. Pressure from the international community, especially the United States Government, is absolutely necessary to bring about change in India.

I believe that it is imperative for the U.S. Congress and the Clinton administration to pay more attention to the exploitation of children in India as well as other areas in South and Southeast Asia. Currently, Germany has instigated a pilot program that places a stamp on all imported carpets that are child labor free, thus urging consumers to buy these products. Because of the high price range of these carpets, similar programs can and should be given serious consideration in the United States.

The Child Labor Deterrence Act of 1993, which is still under consideration, prohibits importing to the U.S. any product made, whole or in part, by children under 15 who are employed in industry. While this aspect of the bill may be effective, the United States needs to take action regarding child labor abuses, specifically targeted at India. Mr. Speaker, I call on every Member of Congress to pay more attention to this little-recognized problem. We must acknowledge the fact that we cannot continue to sustain the exploitation of children by purchasing carpets woven by the hands of children.

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