Aged 11, Sanju was sent by her parents in rural Nepal to work for a carpet factory in the capital Kathmandu. They were assured she would be paid and well looked after. That was the last they heard of her. Her new employer had her working from 4am until 8pm, seven days a week. She stitched knots until her fingers bled.
An animated video of Sanju’s story forms part of a global push to see the elimination of child labour included in the United Nations’ post-2015 development goals. Launched this week to coincide with End Child Slavery Week, the campaign is headed by child labour activist Kailash Satyarthi, joint winner of this year’s Nobel Peace prize.
Among the beneficiaries of any such official commitment would be the underage workers in Nepal’s carpet industry. Illegal employment of minors is now “very, very prevalent” in the sector, according to Stephanie Odegard, a New York-based rug designer who has been sourcing from Nepal for nearly three decades.
Precise statistics are, almost by definition, difficult to come by. The US Department of Labor estimates as many as one in three children in Nepal work (88% of whom are employed in the agriculture sector). In the carpet industry specifically, the number is believed to be around 10,000 or so, according to Kul Gautam, former assistant secretary-general of the UN and ex-deputy executive director of Unicef. Nepal’s minimum working age is 14 years old.
Factory audits and surprise raids offer a degree of credence to such numbers. Anti-child labour organisation GoodWeave International (formerly known as Rugmark) has rescued 1,075 child workers from Nepal’s carpet factories since 1996. One of those is Sanju.
Initially set up by Satyarthi, GoodWeave certifies rug exporters as child-labour free. The non-profit group, which also operates in India and Afghanistan, counts around 80 certified exporters in Nepal. Collectively, these represent over 400 producers, which employ roughly 13,000 people.
“Child labour was very common in the early 1990s. It went down significantly – I think by about 75% – thanks to GoodWeave’s work… but now, because many companies cannot hire adult labourers, they are employing children again”, says Gautum.
Legacy of war
The surge in child labour owes much to Nepal’s decade-long civil war, which ran from 1996 to 2006. Violence unleashed by the decade-long conflict persuaded many skilled workers in Nepal’s carpet industry to seek work in the Gulf states, India, Malaysia and further afield. Remittances now comprise 28.8% of Nepal’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.
As well as the labour shortage caused by migration, another phenomenon of the civil war was the forced recruitment of children in rural areas by Maoists guerrillas. To avoid them being conscripted, many parents sent their children to Nepal’s major cities for safety, explains Gautum: “Factory owners took advantage of the situation and started employing young children.”
In addition, violence and intimidation against high-profile business people persuaded Nepal’s rug manufacturers to close or decentralise operations. In some cases, they found their factories seized. Across the formal industry, meanwhile, Nepal’s militant unions made production “harder and harder”, says Odegard.
“We had developed the industry really nicely into beautiful factories and so on, but then the Maoists simply wanted to take over those factories… so we had to break down our factories and subcontract to small units that were less obvious. That’s the way the industry has remained,” she explains.
With the restoration of peace in recent years, levels of civil conflict have decreased. Yet child labour persists. That’s partly because the industry continues to suffer a shortfall of skilled workers. Over 20,000 positions are currently unfilled, according to Nina Smith, executive director at GoodWeave USA, which recently started a programme to train unemployed men and women in carpet weaving.
At the same time, margins remain tight. Nepal’s carpet industry saw demand drop significantly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and consequent recession. Higher costs for material imports, plus increased competition from China and other low-cost producing countries, represent additional challenges.
Lack of government action allows child labour to continue too. According to Odegard, none of her Nepalese producers have ever received a visit from a state inspector. In Gautam’s view, the problem stems not from resource shortages but from a lack of political will and from pervasive corruption. “There are no kickbacks when it comes to rescuing boys and girls from child labour”, he observes.
The fault doesn’t lie solely with the Nepalese, however. The country’s rug and carpet market is almost entirely-export focused. But demand for child labour-free products in key markets such as the US, UK and Germany remains sluggish.
Around 140 brands currently carry the certifier’s label, which retail in thousands of shops worldwide, including US high-street chain Macy’s and the German online vendor OTTO. Even so, GoodWeave comprises only 6% of the global hand-made rug market.
“Building consumer demand is a big job that has to be done in the West”, says Gautam. But he is confident that campaigns like Stand with Sanju will begin to hit home: “In terms of awareness, Kailash Satyarthi winning the Nobel Prize is going to have a positive impact.”
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Photo:: Children stand in line after being rescued from a sari embroidery factory in Kathmandu. A total of 39 children who were rescued from the factory. Photograph: Navesh Chitrakar/REUTERS
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