Bonded Child Labour in the Indian Carpet industry
The carpet industry in India employs children from bonded labour families to work intensive hours in often dangerous conditions. Laws are often ignored and governments are doing little to solve the problem. Victims of inequality are mostly the poor, with globalisation decreasing chances for families to escape bonded labour. Governments and consumers are encouraged to develop strategies to eliminate this global inequality for children within this industry.
Introduction: The Industry
The handmade carpet industry in India is one of the largest exploiters of child labour in the country with rugs being one of the top export products in South Asia (Rugmark, online). Due to its legal status, it is not known the exact amount of children employed in this business; some sources claim that there are approximately 10,000 child workers, and others claim there are up to 25,000 (Khorus, 1999, pp.52). Since 1995, organisations such as Rugmark (Rugmark, online) and Volunteers for Social Justice, Punjab, have released thousands of children from the carpet industry, and prevented others from entering it. In 1986, the Child Labour Act made the employment of children below the age of 14 illegal. However there are still many children under 14 years of age entering the market without proper law enforcement and regulations preventing it (Anker, 2004). The majority of children in this industry are between the ages of 4 and 14 who are sent by their parents to work and provide for the family and are victims of bonded labour.
According to Antislavery International, slavery is defined as forced work through mental or physical threat, being 'owned' by an 'employer' and treated as property, and being physically constrained (Anti-slavery international, online). By these standards as well as the illegal nature of child labour, it is possible to argue that the children in the Indian carpet industry are what have been termed, modern slaves. Bonded labour is the result of families becoming greatly indebted to landlords. For the most part, debt is acquired by men and is eventually extended to the wife and children due to debt increases. The debt is repaid through labour, but it is often passed from generation to generation. The reason that debt is handed down is due to the collective culture in India that everything owned and owed is shared in the family (Anker, 2004). Bonded labour is illegal in India but because it has existed in the country for many centuries it is very difficult for families to free themselves from it. In some cases people have become accustomed to being 'owned' that they choose to remain in bondage (Anker, 2004).
By entering the workforce children are forced to leave school and are thus denied the right to an education. According to Swami (1998), whenever child labour increases there is a visible rise in the school drop out rate. A majority of these children work 12 hours a day with short breaks and little food (Pangaea, 1995). According to The Progress of Indian States (as cited at Swami, 1998) these labourers spend their whole lives in repetition working long hours in often dangerous conditions. They are subject to mental and physical abuse and receive minimal or no pay. Many children are also forced to sleep in loom sheds, to which some are chained, that often result in respiratory diseases from inhaling wool fibers (Rugmark, online). The result of working for years in cramped working areas is that these children become malnourished, develop impaired vision and deformities as well as acquire injuries from sharp tools. According to the Human Rights Watch (1996), children are also prone to emphysema and tuberculosis and their cuts are "cured" by cauterising them with burning sulphur.
It is important to note that slight changes in the carpet industry have occurred in respect to the treatment of child labourers in conjunction with economic changes. In the past, employers would portray themselves as caring father figures in public and only become abusive if the children acted against his interest (Anker, 2004). The idea of lending to families was culturally considered by the elite class to be a social privilege for the poor rather than being motivated by increased profits. However, due to greater commercialisation and increases in export demand in the global economy the focus on profit has similarly increased and employers are taking advantage by demanding better return from workers by granting more loans. This has resulted in more abuse within the workplace, higher debt charged to anyone who could not work and generally less concern for the employees (Anker, 2004). Characteristics of the modern era are also highlighted by increasing contemporary business relationships. For example, child labourers are often employed through contractors (Anker, 2004).
Child labour has over time become a part of the culture and is seen as tradition to many. This is sometimes reflected by government. For instance, the Minister of External Affairs (MEA) has been quoted (Swami, 1998) defending the tradition while simultaneously disapproving the employment of children and blaming socio-economic factors. The Minister then goes on to say that poverty is to blame for this inequality, where child labour in higher in states with large populations of poor people. But who are the poor people? Why are they poor? In the book Political Economy of New Slavery, Anker (2004) argues that while race discrimination is not relevant in the slave trade, factors such as gender, ethnicity, race and religion render certain people more vulnerable to poverty and exploitation.
In India it is not always necessary to just be poor in order to become entrapped in bonded labour. There are three main socially and historically excluded groups; the low caste, people in minority religions and ethnic minorities including tribal indigenous people (Anker, 2004). Many of these people have no choice but to borrow money in order to survive, and this places them in debt and bondage. Once these people become indebted it is generally the children in the family who become victims of slave labour. This is because exploitation of children means paying lower wages, thus increasing industry profit (PANGAEA, 1995). Children have become a form of economic security to many poor families in India, foregoing their education and becoming entrapped in the labour industry. Furthermore, the exploitation of children in the carpet industry takes away potential higher paid positions for adult workers, decreasing chances to eliminate or even alleviate poverty in communities (Swami, 1998).
Some people argue that slavery and exploitation in the last century has increased due to greater poverty and inequality. There are three main reasons for this, which Anker (2004) summerises as being a significant increase in population, government corruption and political and economic globalisation. Since 1945, the world's population has tripled with a majority existing in third world countries such as India and China where a lack of properly functioning social system has resulted in more poor people. The carpet industry has claimed many poor children and not only with government, but despite laws and regulations have also encouraged and facilitated the exploitation (Human Rights Watch, 1996).
The main contribution of globalisation to child labour and exploitation is the growing demand for cheap products worldwide where the flow of goods are determined by worldwide competition so that employees in some countries, like India, are forced to work under worsening conditions for low wages (Anker, 2004). This system benefits consumers in healthier economies who take full advantage, providing little opportunity for struggling communities to improve their situations. Is this the cost of modernisation?
Globalisation has affected bonded labour by escalating price levels and increasing poverty so that families are forced to borrow more money in order to survive and thus becoming more indebted to landlords (Anker, 2004). Poor people are more vulnerable to exploitation than the majority and those who are able to employ the desperate have no obligation to provide proper care. The situation is not aided by the fact that India's ruling class is either oblivious to or ignoring the conditions of this inequality (Swami, 1998). Anker (2004) also blames the relocation of village people to urban districts, the social segregation, and political activities on the growing foreign markets.
The positive aspect of globalisation is that there has been increasing exposure of the abuses and inequalities in industries such as the carpet industry in India. However it can not be easy to eliminate poverty when 75% of the population lives in rural areas (PANGAEA, 1995). The Indian Government has invoked several laws prohibiting child labour but these are rarely followed, with business men finding loopholes or breaking the law and knowing that government officials will turn a blind eye. Communities do not rise and protest because child abuse and child labour is accepted as being necessary by the victims themselves. Therefore it is up to both national and international governments to set up legislations and policies that serve the interests of the people as well as developing strategies within communities to combat slavery. Strategies can include the protection of India's carpet industry from cheap imports, or setting up more opportunities for education. Strategies should be developed that assist families who already are victims or who are potential victims of bonded labour that create safeguards against enslavement. Not only do these victims need economic support, they also require emotional and educational support to motivate a search of alternative livelihoods (Anker, 2004).
In order for changes to be made in the structure of the workforce in the carpet industry and for significant educational developments to occur, international pressure is required. The globalisation of capitalism emphasizes this political need (Anker, 2004). Countries such as Germany are encouraging consumers to buy carpets that are stamped to indicate that they are child labour free (PANGAEA, 1996). There should be more exposure and criticism of these industries worldwide. Consumer action can have high impact or exports in this industry. They can also be encourages to put pressure on suppliers and to lobby governments. International governments can put pressure on the national government to be more diligent in eliminating child labour. They can also create new incentive for families such as providing more schools, offering free meals in the schools to motivate people to attend them. Perhaps even making school attendance mandatory (Anker, 2004). There is much that the Indian government could do to implement human rights legislation and policies regarding bonded labour. One way is to ensure that adults are able to earn decent wages so that they are not forced to send their children to work for them.
Bonded labour in India is amongst the most significant slave systems that result from poverty and debt. Existing laws do little to prevent child labour and abuse is the carpet industry, which is one of the biggest exploiters of child labour. Although globalisation has increased social inequality by creating more poverty, the problem is mostly a national and domestic issue that needs serious local attention. However, due to globalisation there is much more potential for international intervention and worldwide populations have increased interests in ethical trading (Anker, 2004). If consumers and governments alike become proactive, bonded child labour in the carpet industry in India may one day be eliminated.
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