Crusade to market child-labor-free rugs

RugMark raises awareness of U.S. shoppers.

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Rescued child weavers can attend one of RugMark's schools and rehabilitation centers in Nepal and India for free until age 18.

Sanita Lama and Jaya Bhandari describe grim experiences from their childhood, when they were forced to work illegally as carpet weavers at various rug factories in Katmandu, Nepal.

To help pay off her parents' debts, Lama quit school and began working at age 8. Bhandari started at age 9. For two years, Lama says, she toiled at the loom for 13 hours a day, hand-knotting strands of carpet yarns in a dust-filled room. Bhandari describes chronic breathing and eye problems after his long shifts. Both say they withstood beatings and scolding at work.

Lama and Bhandari, both now 20, were rescued in 1999 by the RugMark Foundation, which crusades against child labor in South Asia's carpet industry. Founded in 1994, the international nonprofit organization aims to eliminate the use of children in rug mills in India, Nepal and Pakistan and, through its education programs, helps young people mend their broken childhoods.

Through its Most Beautiful Rug campaign, RugMark is aiming to increase consumer awareness of child-labor issues. In advertisements, RugMark encourages shoppers to buy only carpets it has certified as free from child labor, "because an imported rug that was made using child labor is ugly, no matter what it looks like."

Kailash Satyarthi, RugMark's founder, believes the practice will end if more American shoppers request child-labor-free rugs.

RugMark-certified carpets are sold at more than 1,000 retail locations in the United States and Canada (10 local retailers are listed at www.rugmark.org). The rugs are imported from the 529 factories in Nepal and 290 in India that have pledged to use only adult workers. The goal is to increase the North American market share of certified carpets to 15 percent, up from the current 5 percent.

"Then we will truly impact industry practice," says Nina Smith, executive director of RugMark.

All rugs sold by Carpets of Imagination in Petaluma, Calif., are manufactured in Nepal by a RugMark licensee. Owner/designer Alicia Keshishian wants, among other things, to debunk the myth that only children's small fingers can weave intricate carpets.

"Would you let a 10-year-old paint the wall in your house?" she asks. "Likewise, craftsmanship comes with age and experience."

Smith agrees and adds that strong hands are often needed to tie the knots. Children are used to drive down the costs, she says.

International laws and treaties prohibit use of workers under age 14, but many countries fail to enforce the rules. An estimated one in six children in the world works illegally, and nearly 300,000 are exploited in the carpet industry, according to studies by UNICEF, the United Nations International Labor Organization, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

RugMark founder Satyarthi, an Indian labor-rights activist, began the organization after learning that children he was rescuing from illegal rug mills were being sent back to the factories. He decided to devise a better strategy and create a label certifying that carpets are child-labor-free.

Rescued child weavers are sent to one of RugMark's 13 facilities in India and Nepal. At these schools and rehabilitation centers, the former carpet kids can receive free education until they turn 18. Children over 14 are offered vocational training. To date, more than 3,172 children have been rescued.

To ensure that licensed factories comply, RugMark's five inspectors conduct random inspections. Raids are launched at unlicensed sites if RugMark suspects under-age children are being used.

Though other child-labor-free labels exist, RugMark says its independence - it doesn't manufacture carpets - gives it more credibility. Some other labels have been initiated by the companies and governments themselves, "thus eliminating the prospect of an independent audit mechanism," Satyarthi says.

A year ago, Barbara Jacobs, a carpet designer in Medfield, Mass., went to India to scout out a manufacturer for her new line of hand-knotted Tibetan rugs. When the factory manager she met could offer only an oral promise that the rugs would not use child labor, she chose to work with a Nepalese licensee of RugMark.

The group's certification provides quality assurance, Jacobs says. "I want to tell my clients about the label, and I'm able to stand behind it."

But not everyone is so eager to discuss the issue. Keshishian, the carpet retailer, says her outreach efforts are sometimes met with resistance from industry professionals who don't want to talk about the dark side of carpet manufacturing.

"I heard merchants saying, 'Why did you tell your customers? You will make everybody question how all the carpets are made.' "

That's exactly what RugMark is hoping to do. Lama and Bhandari toured the United States last year to tell their stories. They do the same thing in Katmandu, where they visit carpet factories and urge child workers to speak up for their rights.

"If we can keep our hope, why can't others?" Bhandari asks.

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