Young Children Weave Carpets at a Kathmandu Factory
Young Children Weave Carpets at a Kathmandu Factory
By: Alison Wright
Source: © Alison Wright/Corbis.
About the Photographer: Alison Wright is an award-winning freelance photographer and journalist based in San Francisco. In the late 1980s, Wright worked for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Nepal for about four years, where she focused on children engaged in child labor. In 1993, she received the Dorothea Lange Award in Documentary Photography for her portrayal of child labor in Asia.
The carpet industry in Nepal, over the years, has accounted for a significant proportion of foreign exchange for the country. Carpets have been one of the major exports of Nepal, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At its peak in 1994, revenue generated from carpet exports was nearly $180 million, with Germany and the United States being the biggest export markets. According to Nepal's Commerce Ministry, carpet exports accounted for half of the total exports in the same year.
However, the labor-intensive carpet industry employs a significant number of underage children. According to Child Workers in Nepal, a child rights organization, out of 200,000 people employed in the Nepalese carpet industry in the early 1990s, thirty-eight percent were children below the age of fourteen. Reports indicate that most industries in Nepal employ child laborers. A fact sheet prepared by the International Labor Organization as part of its International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (ILO-IPEC) mentioned that nearly 2.6 million children worked in Nepal in the 1990s. These children, generally between five and fourteen years of age, comprised more than forty percent of the total child population in Nepal during the above-mentioned period.
The carpet industry in Nepal gained prominence as a result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, when many Tibetans were forced out of the region. A majority of them took refuge in Nepal, bringing with them their traditional carpet-weaving skills. The circumstances in Nepal at the time, such as low cost of child labor, proved favorable for the expansion of the country's carpet industry.
Human Rights organizations, such as ILO, have often highlighted in their reports the lowly conditions of child laborers in the carpet weaving industry. Carpet makers defend such recruitment practices claiming that children are better at weaving intricate designs—a key requirement in the carpet industry.
Children are often forced to work for extremely long hours in cramped and dimly lit conditions for little or no compensation. These organizations state that the children, often ill-fed and beaten, are made to work in hazardous conditions. For instance, the air inside carpet factories is filled with woolen fluff, making breathing extremely difficult.
According to ILO-IPEC, some child laborers are enslaved in accordance with local custom that involves setting off the wages earned by them for the debts their parents have incurred from carpet factory owners. There have also been reports of sexual abuse and child trafficking to neighboring countries.
YOUNG CHILDREN WEAVE CARPETS AT A KATHMANDU FACTORY
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Child labor is widespread in various countries, especially the least developed nations. According to UNICEF, as of 2005 there were an estimated 246 million child laborers in the world. Nearly seventy percent of these children work in hazardous conditions. Nepal, one of the least developed countries in the world, has faced this scourge for many years. Experts maintain that child labor, apart from being illegal, affects a country in many ways. Education plays an important role in the progress of any country. High prevalence of child labor implies fewer educated children. This would affect the economy in the long run.
According to the ILO there are various reasons that force children in Nepal to work. These include extreme poverty, lack of education, large-scale transition of labor from the agricultural sector to other areas, traditionalist societal values and customs, and absence of effective implementation of existing legislation. There are laws that prohibit child labor in any industry in Nepal. The Nepal Children's Act of 1992 terms child labor as illegal. Article 20 of the Constitution of Nepal, formulated in 1990, guarantees the right against exploitation to children. Child labor in hazardous occupations has been banned since 1956. Under the Labor Act of 1992, it is a criminal offense to employ children less than fourteen years of age. Moreover, the country is also a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, due to the above-mentioned factors and weak implementation of such laws, child labor has been rampant.
Neighboring countries such as India and Bangladesh show similar trends. Both India and Bangladesh reportedly have a high percentage of child laborers. Like Nepal, some of the main reasons for child labor in these countries are poverty, lack of education, and poor implementation of laws. Nevertheless, owing to the magnitude of child labor in Nepal, several anti-child-labor campaigns have been organized since the early 1990s. For instance, there was an aggressive consumer awareness campaign in Europe in 1990 that highlighted employment of children in carpet manufacturing. According to a Ford Foundation report, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa co-sponsored the Pease-Harkin bill in the mid-1990s, proposing a ban on import of all goods that involved child labor. However, this bill was not passed.
Such initiatives did lead to numerous other developments for the prevention of child labor in Nepal. The Government of Nepal set up the Child Labor Free Certification Coordination Committee in 1994. The committee, as a means of discouraging child labor, issues child-labor-free certification to carpet manufactures that do not employ child workers. In 1995, the ILO also commenced its IPEC program to create awareness, education, and rehabilitation schemes for children.
Another organization—RUGMARK International—has been successful in diminishing child labor in Nepal to a considerable extent. RUGMARK Nepal, launched in the 1990s, has a team of independent inspectors that regularly inspect carpet manufacturers participating in their program. According to the organization, between 1996 and 2004 it has been responsible for rehabilitating 1,760 children. As of 2004, 517 manufacturers representing seventy percent of Nepal's carpet exports are inspected by RUGMARK. According to a 1999 UNICEF report titled "Situation Analysis of Child Labor in Carpet Industry of Nepal," in 1996 an estimated fifty percent of Nepal's carpet weavers were children. Four years after RUGMARK launched in Nepal this figure dropped to less than five percent.
Such initiatives are thought to have significantly reduced the number of child workers in Nepal's carpet industry. According to the Ford Foundation, as of the mid-2000s the number of children working in this industry has dropped to two percent. Moreover, trade figures from the Carpet Industry of Nepal indicate that two-thirds of the nearly three thousand carpet manufacturers in 1993 went out of business as a result of the anti-child-labor awareness. However, trade figures also indicate a substantial slowdown in carpet manufacturing in the country. Also, with the reduction in employment of children in the carpet industry, there have been simultaneous reports indicating a rise in child trafficking to neighboring countries.
Roberts-Davis, Tanya. We Need to Go to School: Voices from the Rugmark Children. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2003.
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