National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 18, 2003

For these children, no magic carpets


Several weeks ago I was crossing a busy Kansas City street, two little girls ages 6 and 7 in tow. As I grasped their small hands, I couldn’t help but notice how rough they were. Unlike the skin of most children, soft to the touch and pliable, these little hands were like steel wool -- weathered, sandpapery skin like you’d find on the hands of a longshoreman or a construction worker.

Late that evening, after a day at the laundromat and grocery shopping, we relaxed in this Afghan refugee family’s small living room. I called the girls over and took their hands in mine, gently examining them. They were red and scarred. I was trying to figure out how little girls this young had hands with skin so coarse. “Do your hands hurt?” I asked the 7-year-old. She nodded shyly. Their English is still at a premium, my Farsi vocabulary even less. So we began a game of charades in which she tried to show me with gestures how her hands had gotten this way. She pointed to the wooden floor. I gestured back. Scrubbing the floor? No. Washing clothes? No. Just then her younger sister took me by the hand and led me outside to my car. By now I was totally puzzled. Surely these kids weren’t working on an automobile assembly line! When I opened the passenger-side door, the younger girl, Yasmeen, pointed to the carpeted floor mats as her older sister made gestures of working on a loom. Finally I understood. Both Yasmeen and her sister had been child workers in the Persian rug industry.

Later I got the details from a family friend who spoke English. While the family was living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, as recently as last December, the youngest girls -- the “workers of choice” for their small hands and nimble fingers -- were expected to “pay their way” by working in the lucrative carpet industry. Younger children’s tiny, slim bodies could easily move in and out behind the looms, tying the millions of loose threads on each carpet and quickly moving the looms’ shuttles. When the girls didn’t move fast enough or didn’t produce enough, they were routinely beaten; and if they returned home with fewer rupees than expected, they got another beating by the refugee camp’s leaders.

The children’s story was no exception. An Internet search for “child labor worldwide” produced 249 thousand entries on just one search engine! In Pakistan alone, there are an estimated 15 million child laborers; according to the report, “EI Barometer on Human and Trade Union Rights in the Education Sector” (1998), 1.2 million of these children are “debt bonded” workers in the nation’s carpet industry. And Rugmark, a watchdog/human rights group aimed at just and humane treatment of carpet industry workers and a distributor of labor-friendly Oriental carpets, reports that other major offenders in the carpet industry alone are Nepal and India: In Nepal it is estimated that at least 1 million children work as laborers, at least half in the rug-making industry. In India, as many as 300,000 children are working in the carpet industry alone, most of them in debt-bondage situations.

In 1989 the United Nations issued the “Convention on the Rights of the Child,” designed to protect the world’s children from abuse, prostitution, slavery and other human rights violations. The convention was ratified by 191 nations. Only three did not agree to ratify the document: Somalia, Timor-Leste (which was not yet an independent nation) -- and the United States. Under the terms of the convention, nations agree on 18 as the age of adulthood, which should prevent trafficking in child slavery and prostitution, and established the age of 15 as the age in which children fulfill the minimum educational requirements of their countries. The child labor laws for Ivory Coast, for example, set the minimum age of 18 for “hazardous work,” 16 for “light underground work” and 12 for “light agricultural work.” But each nation can interpret for itself what those categories mean. Because the United Nations’ ability to monitor child labor practices in close to 200 nations is next to impossible, many countries, trade unions and employers close an eye to the exploitive employment of children. In fact, in some nations, child labor actually appears on the rise rather than in decline, particularly in regions and industries that are difficult to monitor -- like carpet manufacturing in refugee camps.

According to UNICEF, despite the Convention on the Rights of the Child, at least 250 million children currently work for a living in developing countries, nearly half of them full time. And at least 60 million children are considered exploited under extreme forms of child labor such as debt bondage and prostitution. (See UNICEF’s excellent free, downloadable publication, “Beyond Child Labour, Affirming Rights.”)

The carpet industry in the Middle East, athletic shoe manufacture (including leading U.S. brands) in Southeast Asia, and chocolate production in Ivory Coast are just a few of the industries that profit from the exploitation of cheap child labor. Many Americans and other First World residents don’t think twice about the origins of what we buy. But for the sake of the world’s children, we have an obligation to be informed, and make purchasing decisions based on justice and human dignity.

For some children, there’s nothing magic about a carpet.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003

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