Child Labour and Rug Production.

History tells us that rug weaving was originally developed in Persia, from there the skills spread to Turkey, Asia and eventually Europe. Rug Weaving is a fairly simple but time taking process that has been passed been passed from generation to generation for over two millennia. Here in the west we simply use rugs to decorate our new wood flooring or cover a stain in the carpet. In many eastern cultures a rug can be treasured heirloom and the symbol of good heath and prosperity, it may be the most expensive possession that a family owns.

The weaving skills, design elements and handlooms have been passed down from father to son and mother to daughter over many centuries and will continue to be passed down for centuries to come. Children helping or learning weaving skills from a parent cannot in itself be portrayed as child labour. In the west we encourage our children to do chores for rewards, pocket money or as character building exercises. We may indulge our children in hobbies or interests that could potentially earn money, but again it would be wrong to describe such actions as child labour. So, how do we define child labour?

In Victorian England during the height of the Industrial Revolution children as young as four were employed in many sectors of industry such has cotton mills, coal mines and as chimney sweeps. When the author Daniel Defoe visited England he reported on the young workers, but not in derogatory fashion. The sight of workers as young as four years old working was common practice, he simply reported on the Lancashire cotton industry that he was delighted to see children finding useful employment.

In the United Kingdom child labour reforms took over forty years and many Acts of Parliament before the Factory Act 1844 was passed, restricting a child’s working day to six hours. Victorian children working six hours a day by today’s standards is Child Labour. While child labour is now eradicated in Western cultures it is still a very real problem in many of the third world cultures, particularly Indian and Pakistan.

In many ways India and Pakistan are currently undergoing their own Industrial Revolution. In the West we have invested in factory production lines and robots that reduce the requirement for manual labour, standards of living have improved meaning western workers are now earning good salaries. Many of the more laborious manual tasks such as hand sewing, hand embroidering and hand weaving are simply too time taking which reflects in the finished price of the goods. In India and Pakistan around five adult workers can be employed for a day with the equivalent of one hours salary of a single western worker. Children are open to even greater exploitation, one Pakistan rug manufacturer claimed “For what I'd pay one second-class adult weaver I can get three boys, sometimes four, who can produce first-class rugs in no time."

Many of the goods produced in India and Pakistan are low-tech labour intensive products such as clothes, rugs, handbags, leather goods and cheap jewellery. Yet when we think of Child labour issues it is often hand woven and hand knotted rug making that mainly comes under the greatest scrutiny. Rug weaving in India and Pakistan is a massive cottage industry, because handlooms do not need electricity rugs can be produced virtually anywhere, many of the looms are in homes of the weavers and many of the homes are in rural villages. The village in essence is the manufacturing unit where everyone the community are co-workers, including the young children. While it is illegal for children under 15 years to work in India, it is common practice, particularly in the rural areas.

Organisations such as Kaleen and Rugmark are policing the problem, but the territories are vast and it is an impossible task to uncover every loom. Because child labour it is inbuilt into the culture much as it was in Victorian England, easy solutions are hard to come by. Several schools of thought exist as to how go about solving the problem. Some believe that children should be educated by day then allowed to work with their parents after their schooling. Others believe in more policing and harsher action on offenders. As a retailer and an importer we know the problems and avoid the hand woven and hand knotted products in favour of hand -tufted products. Hand tufted rugs require consistent colours and designs and are more likely to be produced in standard factories that have easier access for inspectors to make a surprise inspection. The manufacturing method is also much faster, requiring heavier tools that tuft into a vertical canvas base, making the task impractical for a small child to manage.

It will take many years to obliterate child labour though out the world. The dilemma is we need provide trade to the offending countries to allow them growth, but at the same time protect the children. We all need to keep questioning the ethics of imported products in ways that we believe are morally correct.