The Multinational Monitor



Cashing In on Child Labor

by Pradeep S. Mehta

UTTAR PRADESH IS A STATE IN NORTHERN INDIA which gave the world's largest democracy three prime ministers. Now, it is fast gaining international notoriety as an industrial backyard where more than 50,000 children under 13 years of age weave beautiful woollen carpets prized in Europe and North America for their intricate oriental designs. It is home to the famous Mirzapur carpet industry, which justifies employing little hands for their `deftness,' absolving itself in the eyes of the government by earning $20 million in foreign exchange for the country.

Jai Shree Ram and his cousin Chandrika Ram work at one such loom in the Faridabad district of the state. In a humid shack with little ventilation, they recall how their parents in the neighboring Bihar state were persuaded to sell them into veritable slavery: an agent of the loom owner approached the boys' parents with less than $100, more money than they had seen in one place in their entire lives, and practically bought the boys.

The high wages that the agent promised for their work turned out to be an illusion. They are paid less than $20a month, and after the loom owner makes deductions for room and board, there is very little left to send home. Putting savings aside to pay for education and medical treatment for the ill-effects of inhaling fiber dust day after day is out of the question.

The child workers are physically abused by their employers as well. Tasleem, a seven-year-old girl with eves that still shine in a hollow, emaciated face, longs to return to Bihar, her home. "Once when I cried for my mother, the mill owner hit me with a steel rod," she says.

The Mirzapur belt is dotted with factories operating out of small shacks whose interiors resemble dungeons. The "clack-clack" sound of looms filters out into streets that are thick with flies feeding on open sewers. During the long summer months, the Ram cousins and thousands of other children work in furnace-like heat. Chandrika is about ten, his cousin Jai a little older. Neither have attended school beyond what was called "primary school" in their village - run-down rooms with few teachers, and almost no furniture or supplies. Taslerm has never been to school at all. When they reach their twenties, the Ram cousins will face early retirement to make way for younger workers, just as they replaced men and women who had outgrown their utility.

In the arid tracts of northern India, parents who are too poor to feed, clothe and educate their offspring are easy victims for the agents of numerous small industries which employ children. Children also work in the more fertile areas of the Country, but instead of the looms, they are sent to the fields, earning the minimum wages guaranteed by the government. All told, India has some 44 million workers under the age of 13-300,000 in the carpet industry alone. The system exists in defiance of India's Child Labour Act, -which identities 14 as the minimum age for employment. The country's constitution mandates state responsibility for providing free, compulsory education up to that age. Yet India still produces 2 million illiterates annually, according to U.S. political scientist Myron Weiner.

According to a recent UNICEF report, every third house in India has a child working as a domestic and every fourth child works to earn wages that arc the sole income of the entire family. Of the total child population of 300 million, between 13 and 17 million must earn their own living.

Fighting the system

The system would likely go unchallenged were it not for the efforts of Kailash Satyarthy. In 1986, Satyarthy launched a crusade against child labor exploitation and founded the South Asian Coalition of Child Servitude (SACCS), intending it to serve as a pan-India movement against the exploitation of children in all countries of the sub-continent. Over the years, it has brought under its umbrella numerous smaller non-governmental organizations which monitor industries such as carpets, beedi (a leafv Indian plant that is smoked), matchsticks, fireworks, glass, lead slate, brass, domestics and locks.

Some people try to use India's poverty as an excuse for these widespread abuses. "There is a misconception that child labor is caused by poverty, but actually, poverty is the result of child labor," says Satyarthy. He points out that in 1947, the year India won independence from Britain, the number of child laborers was 10 million, exactly the same number as unemployed adults. Today, there are 55 million child workers and the unemployment figure for adults also stands at 55 million. "If these unemployed people could be given the jobs in the looms and the children sent to school, [we] wouldn't be caught in the trap of poverty," he says.

As Satyarthy watched Western demand for Indian carpets grow, he developed an international strategy for his battle on behalf of children. He recognized that the industry was profiting from Western consumers' ignorance of its unethical production practices. The Indian government was giving tacit consent to these practices because of the precious hard currency the industry brought into the country, but Satyarthy realized that educating Western consumers about how the carpets were made would create pressure on the government to enforce its own child labor laws. "Once the dollars stop[ped] coming they had to sit up and listen to us," he says.

By the late-1980s, Satvarthi's creative strategy had had a real impact in Europe. Carpet importers were forced by consumer groups to insist on "Not made by child labor" labels. From 1992 to 1993, the campaign actually caused a drop of $6.6 million in India's carpet export earnings. Supporters of the child labor system dubbed Satyarthy "anti-national" for damaging India's national image and bringing losses to the export industry.

In May 1993, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, threatened to introduce a bill that would have banned U.S. carpet imports from India entirely. Satyarthy persuaded him not to introduce the bill, which won him credibility with the Indian government and set the stage for reform in the carpet industry. Shaken to its foundations at a time when India badly needed foreign exchange, the Indian government sought to quickly restore its image.

India's Carpet Export Promotion Council created a mandatory code of conduct for all exporters, but the council's chairperson, T.S. Chadha, admits this is not enough to eradicate child labor. "All members have to stop employing children and no one who is not a member can export," he says. However, the looms are scattered over a wide area and the Council does not have an adequate system of oversight Manufacturers are subject only to occasional inspections, and the code of conduct is poorly enforced.

While the code requires firms exporting hand-knit carpets to register with the Council, and failure to conform with the child labor clause can bring sanctions, there are no officials with the power to impose those penalties. Since 1992, when proper registration began, only 60,000 looms have been registered, but there are over 150,000 in operation. The government has not made registration mandatoty, and it is difficult to differentiate between carpets made by children and those made by adults.

This ineffective system has not impressed European carpet Customers. In the summer of 1994, in the face of mounting public disgust at child labor practices, the European Parliament is expected to consider a resolution demanding a total ban on the import of carpets from India. If the vote comes to the floor of Parliament, the Indian government's efforts to build a respectable international image for the industry will be deeply damaged.

Electoral organizing

Satyarthy's struggle took a new direction in December 1993 when he persuaded 1,986 candidates in the provincial elections of Uttar Pradesh to include in their election platforms a promise to ban child labor. Of these, 341 were elected, including the chief minister, Mulay am Singh Yadav.

Satvarthy is now working to ensure the candidates keep their promises. "We were not so optimistic as to leave the matter solely in their hands. Along with a letter of our congratulations on being elected, we mailed each new legislator a copy of his pledge letter." Satyarthy is now planning to organize a one-day "reception/orientation" where the legislators, including the chief minister, will be briefed on the full details of the problem they have resolved to fight. During 1994, SACCS also plans to organize four seminars to teach others advocacy and campaign strategies, recruiting participants through a network of more than 100 non-governmental organizations that have signed up.

Satyarthy's efforts have also included a 1,500 kilometer march from Nagarotari, a notorious "catchment area" for child slaves in Bihar, to Mahatma Gandhi's memorial at Rajghat in New Delhi.

Still, the Indian government has vet to grapple with the complexity of the child labor issue. "If we are serious about implementing the numerous legislations prohibiting the employment of children under 16, we may have [to] close factories," Labor Minister P. A. Sangma says. There is also a sector of public opinion that rationalizes the need for child labor to prevent an excess of illiterate, unemployed youth and to preserve the traditional arts which are too impoverished to employ adults at higher wages.

Satyarthy is not blind to the larger problems, though. SACCS has rehabilitated many children, after freeing many of them through "raids" on looms. They are lodged in a center called "Mukti Asram" (Haven of the Free) just outside New Delhi where they are educated and taught skills which enable them to support themselves.

Pradeep S. Mehta is the general secretary of the Consumer Unity & Trust Society in Calcutta, India.

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