Marked For Life
The Rugmark scheme aims to put a smiling face symbol on each child-labour-free carpet –
but is it working? Mukul Sharma reports from India.
Ten-year-old Vinod, from Dariyen village, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is a new person now. He worked with a carpet weaver for two years. After his father’s premature death, Vinod had been taken to work on a loom by his mother.
Vinod remembers those horrifying days with deep pain. ‘I used to work for 12 to 14 hours in a day on the loom. I was not paid a single penny for a year. A week after joining, I was hung upside down for a minor fault. Whenever I sustained injuries while using a sharp knife to turn the carpet knots, I was denied medical care. Instead my employer used to fill the wound with match-stick powder and burn. My flesh and skin used to burn.’
He was freed from the loom-owner’s clutches only when Rugmark inspectors located him during a spot-check and told the carpet manufacturer either to release Vinod and other child weavers or to disengage the loom.
‘I want to forget those days,’ he continues. ‘Balashraya [Rugmark’s rehabilitation shelter for children] has altered my life. During Diwali vacation, when I went to my village this time, my mother was happy to see me. She remarked that I had a changed look and was bubbling with energy. Mother tells me to concentrate on my studies and treat it as a mission.’
In the traditional carpet-manufacturing areas of Uttar Pradesh, one encounters similar experiences time and again. ‘We have at least ten students like Vinod enrolled in this rehabilitation centre,’ says Ramdhani Yadav, a teacher at Balashraya. ‘Most of them have now developed reading and writing skills. They have an urge to become economically independent. When they go back to their villages, some of them try to enlighten their brethren to unite and struggle for their rights and not fall in the trap of carpet magnates or their touts… Who knows better than them about slavery and its impact and who else can fight against subjugation with such tenacity and transparent honesty?’
Rugmark was the need of the hour. But it was also the product of a movement. During the economic crisis of the 1980s when the Indian Government was desperate for foreign exchange, the carpet industry proved to be a godsend. Export earnings from carpets boomed – but so did the number of children working on looms, from 100,000 in 1975 to 420,000 in 1989. The first response was the launch in 1989 of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS), consisting of 60 non-governmental organizations and campaign groups, which aimed to build a national and international campaign on child labour, especially in the carpet industry.
Eventually in 1994 the Rugmark Foundation followed as a joint initiative supported by campaigners, consumer groups, carpet manufacturers and international organizations like UNICEF. During the first two-and-a-half years of its operation, Rugmark issued licences to 144 exporters, operating 17,859 looms, while 466,317 carpets were certified, labelled and put on the market. Most of these are exported to Germany, the world’s largest importer of Oriental carpets – and approximately a third of the total carpets exported to Germany now bear the Rugmark label. A growing number of importers in other countries, including Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the US, are asking for Rugmark-labelled carpets.
Rugmark’s success depends upon the honesty and efficiency of its inspectors. There are 12 of these at work in the carpet belt and since they started 942 children have been found working illegally at 555 looms – at which point the loom-owners either removed their child workers or were themselves removed from the Rugmark scheme. Of the 18,000-odd looms, ten per cent are inspected every month – and the inspectors themselves do not know until the morning which looms are to be visited that day. Rugmark-labelled carpets have their own numbers, identifying the loom and the exporter. The network of controls is so efficient that so far not one falsely labelled carpet has been identified by those opposing Rugmark.
The inspection system is paid for by the exporters, who contribute a fee of 0.25 per cent of the carpet’s export value. Meanwhile importers of Rugmark carpets agree to contribute one per cent of the export value to a fund administered by UNICEF. This is exclusively used to run two special centres in the Bhadohi region: Rugmark primary school, which opened in August 1996 in Jagpur village, which takes 300 children of carpet weavers, and the Balashraya shelter in Gopiganj mentioned by Vinod, which was launched in October 1996 and is a rehabilitation centre for 75 to 100 freed bonded children and child weavers.
When I visited Balashraya there were 30 children living there, of whom 17 had been working on family looms and the other 13 had been held in effective slavery. The children are taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic but also participate in awareness-raising discussions on health, social issues and the law. They are also encouraged to develop qualities of leadership, discipline and concern for the exploited.
At the Rugmark school, meanwhile, the 250 pupils receive free uniforms, books and stationery – and, most important of all in terms of guaranteeing full attendance, a free, nutritious midday meal. Thus far Rugmark is a success story. But new challenges are inevitably already emerging. A sizeable number of carpet manufacturers, for example, are stealthily shifting their weaving operations into the neighbouring state of Bihar. Carpet manufacturers are going deeper into the impoverished villages of this state, where child labour is cheaper and more abundant – around 5,000 looms have already been set up in the Garhwa district of Bihar. Most of the children whom I witnessed working at looms in Garhwa belonged to tribal or Muslim communities. In the past children from these districts often migrated to the carpet belt for jobs; now the jobs are coming to them.
‘Since I was seven years of age,’ says 13-year-old Ansari of Garhwa, ‘I have been working on the loom owned by my maternal uncle. Then his manufacturer asked him to shift the loom to a safer place where there were no raids or surprise checks by child-rights activists. I am paid 1,000 rupees ($28) for one gaheha (carpet), which normally takes three to four months to weave, and for it I have to work 12 to 16 hours a day on the loom.’
New challenges like these notwithstanding, Rugmark has been a significant success story so far. It provides a model which establishes that carpet manufacturing, free from child labour, is economic, competitive and profitable in national and international markets. It also proves that labour standards can be enforced through the joint endeavours of NGOs, social movements, exporters and importers rather than by a new regime of international policing imposed through the protectionism of rich countries or the designs of their creature, the World Trade Organization.
Rugmark needs to broaden its areas of operation. Otherwise looms will continue to shift to alternative ‘catchment areas’ where child labour is in abundance. It also needs to have a long-term strategy for the development of the carpet industry, on which large sections of the dispossessed rural and urban poor depend for their survival.
But the Rugmark initiative is still a ray of hope. It must continue with the same spirit and determination – fighting its own corner for a world free from child labour and exploitation.
Mukul Sharma is a journalist and activist who specializes in labour. He lives in New Delhi.
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