Swept Under the Rug: Child Labor in India’s Handmade Carpet Industry

Swept Under the Rug: The Truth About Child Labor in India’s Handmade Carpet Industry

India’s handmade carpet industry has been exploiting people for decades, with no repercussions for the brazen use of child labor to produce the country’s number one export. So what’s being done to put a stop to these cruel and inhumane practices? 

Sugarcane, tobacco, cocoa, and clothing are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to industries in which children are being exploited for their labor. And although many of these sectors have been on the radar for quite some time, there may be one that surprises you. Those beautiful, handmade rugs from India that you’ve been pinning like crazy to your living room decor board have also been an unfortunate part of that list of tainted goods. With knowledge of such abuse dating as far back as the early 1990s, it has been difficult to reform largely in part because India is the world’s largest exporter of hand crafted rugs.

In case you’re not fully familiar with what child labor means or entails, the International Labor Organization defines it as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” Furthermore, “in its most extreme forms, child labor involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age.” Sadly, this has become the picture of the handmade carpet industry in India.

According to The Harvard Crimson, in 2014, a report deemed “the largest ever first-hand investigation into slavery and child labor in India’s handmade carpet sector” was released by Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. Its author, Siddarth Kara, who is an adjunct lecturer on public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School as well as a fellow with the FXB Center, sent out a team of anonymous researchers into suspected regions in order to uncover the abuse directly, thereby refuting various claims that child labor, including slavery and child abuse, had been resolved in this particular industry.  

In the report, the allegations were at once appalling and eye-opening. Over 3,200 cases of various forms of child abuse, child labor, and slavery were documented beyond the customary “Carpet Belt” and into nine other states across northern India. The researchers were also able to trace the tainted carpets from the point of manufacture to the point of sale in the United States.

Although this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface so much as it does to summarize it, the team uncovered the following conditions along the way:

  • Workers started as young as 8-years-old.
  • The average work day was found to be 10 to 12 hours, six to seven days a week.
  • There were 1,406 cases of child labor found, with an estimated 20 percent industry prevalence.
  • There were 2,010 cases of bonded labor (a pledge of labor in exchange for security of repayment of debt or other obligation), with an estimated 28 percent industry prevalence.
  • Some 286 cases of human trafficking were uncovered, with an estimated 4 percent industry prevalence.
  • As many as 2,675 cases were discovered in hand-knotted carpet production, and 540 cases in the hand-tufted sector.
  • Not surprisingly, 80 percent of loans in bonded labor cases were taken for basic consumption.
  • In addition to the above findings, a “New Carpet Belt” of child labor, human trafficking, and “numerous cases of children being bought and sold into outright slavery” were also uncovered.

Many times, the conditions in which these children are forced to work are so destitute, that they have been described as subhuman. Per The Harvard Crimson: “Factories and shacks were cramped, filthy, unbearably hot…filled with stagnant and dust-filled air, and contaminated with grime and mold. Some sites were so filthy, pungent, and dangerous that the researchers were afraid to enter due to the risk to their safety.” Desperate, alone, and afraid, these children are exposed time and time again to the deep, dark, depths of inhumanity with no hope in sight.

Aside from awareness, which Kara and his team have so excellently raised, what else can be done to remedy the atrocities from India’s the handmade rug industry?

Conscientiousness is of the utmost importance, and education on the issues from other resources is essential before potentially spending your money on an item that directly contributes to the abuse and exploitation of minors. GoodWeave, a nonprofit organization that aims to “stop child labor in the carpet industry and to replicate its market-based approach in other sectors” is a great place to start. It offers current statistics, ways to campaign, updates on progress, and resources on where to purchase GoodWeave certified rugs that are guaranteed to be child labor-free.

It will take more than just a village to really abolish such abuses. Every purchase counts, so remember make yours meaningful.

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Image of Children’s Hands via Shutterstock