Asia and the Pacific

Inter Press Service
17 March 1995

India-Labour: 'Smiling Carpet' Yet to Bring Cheer to Child Labour
By S. Raman

NEW DELHI (IPS) - The ''Smiling Carpet'' label that certifies that a carpet has been produced without child labour, has not really managed to bring smiles to the faces of the 300,000 children employed in the industry in India.

Two years ago, the Indian carpet industry was jolted out of its complacency by the threat of a ban on carpet exports by the United States for engaging child labour. The US Harkins Bill was to be the instrument for implementing the ban.

While the industry claimed no child labour was involved in making the carpets, a section of NGOs along with the Indo-German Export Promotion Council (IGEP) and the U.S. Children's Fund (UNICEF) came up with the "Smiling Carpet" label idea to circumvent the threat.

Germany is another major importer of average quality Indian carpets for which children with their nimble fingers provide cheap and effective labour.

But the label has not found favour with the Apex Carpet Exporters body, the Carpet Export Promotion Council (CEPC), or the government.

Abject poverty forces the children, most of them below 14 years of age, to work for 10-16 hours a day in terrible conditions that mar their health. "This disables them for life physically, but also mentally, as many have no schooling," says UNICEF.

This is despite the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, 1986, which prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 in hazardous industries, including carpet weaving.

A government official, requesting anonymity, says, ''How can we deprive them of jobs when there are no alternatives?'' Most of the children are employed in northern Indian Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state with high unemployment rates and rampant poverty.

Irked by the government's "practical" approach, a number of NGOs began a consumer campaign in Germany in 1990, aimed to hit the industry where it hurts most--its sales. The campaign was aimed at forcing buyers to stop purchasing Indian carpets.

With the Harkins Bill pending in the United States, German legislators up in arms and the European Parliament in Brussels making angry noises, the $385 million industry began to feel the pinch.THE PINCH.

Aiding the pro-ban lobby were some NGOs who floated the South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude (SAACS) to demand a ban on imports of Indian carpets.

But the momentum of the movement flagged when the U.S. decided to drop the Harkins Bill in favour of introducing the "Social Clause'' in new world trade rules that links working conditions to market access.

All developing countries unitedly opposed the linking of labour conditions with international trade, saying the actual intention of the developed countries was to retard exports by the developing world.

No compromise on the issue is likely in the near future. And for the thousands of children employed in the carpet industry, their life of drudgery continues.

Says Kailash Sathyarthi, chairperson of SAACS, the sole NGO representative in the Rugmark Foundation that launched the "Smiling Carpet" label, "The number of carpet manufacturers eager to get the no-child labour certificate is increasing by the day. Rugmark is the alternative to the boycott of Indian carpets."

But Vimal Kumar, a member of the CEPC and the largest carpet exporting company Obetee, says, "The carpet industry has some reservations about the entire Smiling Carpet proposal. The inspection system is not in place while they are aggressively advertising the carpets abroad. Also, why should SAACS be the only NGO involved?''

The carpet manufacturers say sheer logistics do not allow proper inspection of looms to see if child labour is involved. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh the carpet industry is spread over 2,000 sq kms with manufacturers farming out orders to contractors who further sub-contract the carpets to different loom owners.

Most of the time the carpet manufacturer/exporter does not know where exactly the carpet has been made and whether or not child labour has been employed. Unless a detailed inspection system is worked out, it is not possible to have legitimate labels, the carpet industry argues.

Both the government and the carpet industry also argue that the ban seems motivated more by trade interests rather than concern for child labour. Else, they say, why should only India, that along with Pakistan and Nepal accounts for one million child workers in the South Asian carpet industry, be targetted.

But Sathyarthi says the Rugmark Foundation has adequate manpower and systems in place to hold effective inspections. The Rugmark initiative has also garnered support for the child workers from carpet importers in Germany who have been paying one percent more for the carpets to set up a fund to rehabilitate and educate the child workers.

Though the amoung may not be very much as yet, it is likely to grow substantially in the near future, say Rugmark Foundation officials. They say they are keen to extend the label to Nepal, but may have some problems in Pakistan unless improved diplomatic relations with India allow the India-based foundation to operate freely in that country.

Says Sathyarthi, though the label does not spell the end of child labour, it is a major breakthrough. (END/IPS/LA/SR/MV/95)

Origin: Manila/INDIA-LABOUR/

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