The South Asia Channel

Tainted Carpets, Tainted Economy

After several hours of observing the remote shack in the rural reaches of Bihar, India, we finally saw the guards leave and knew we had precious little time to investigate. My colleague and I approached carefully. The padlock on the front door was easily overcome, and the door opened to a heartbreaking sight that we had seen too many times before.

More than a dozen young boys, ages 10 to 14, were locked inside the shack and forced to weave beautiful hand-made carpets for export to the West. Some of the children were working, some were sleeping, and others were eating meager portions of rice and daal. All the children were gaunt, exhausted, and afraid. It was clear that several were suffering from muscle atrophy, spinal deformation, respiratory ailments, and other maladies as a result of the merciless working conditions. It was a scene of extreme despondency - the innocence of childhood shattered by the abuses of local carpet producers, and the greed of a global economy that preys on the world's weakest and most vulnerable as a source of cheap and expendable labor.

As we approached, the children recoiled. They were clearly nervous, but we assured them we were there to help. We tended to their immediate needs, and told them we would ensure their safety. Later we learned that they had been recruited by contractors who made false promises to their parents of decent wages and the freedom to visit home any time. Months later, they had been paid little if any wages and had not stepped foot out of the filth-infested shack. 

While not all cases that I and my researchers witnessed during our in-depth investigation of India's hand-made carpet sector were so horrific, we nevertheless documented a shocking level of slave-like exploitation at the bottom of India's carpet industry supply chain. Our research was conducted under the auspices of the Harvard School of Public Health and involved the rigorous assessment of several thousand carpet workers across nine states in northern India. In the end, we determined that upwards of 45 percent of these workers were caught in some form of forced labor, and roughly 20 percent of workers in the industry were children. They worked in sub-human conditions, toiling up to 12 or more hours a day to weave beautiful carpets one tiny thread at a time. 

These conditions offer a glimpse into the distressing realities all-too-prevalent across India's informal economy, in which millions of impoverished, disenfranchised, low-caste Indians toil in deeply exploitative conditions, often akin to slavery. Poverty, corruption, greed, caste-based bias, and an absence of rule of law are among the myriad forces that allow this kind of exploitation to persist in India and across South Asia.

As to the carpet sector, we meticulously traced the carpets from the sites we documented directly to major retailers in the United States, including but not limited to companies such as Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus, Williams-Sonoma, Target, Crate and Barrel, and many more. Despite these retailers' considerable efforts to ensure otherwise, some of the carpets they sell are undoubtedly produced with forced or child laborers. 

Indeed, India's carpet industry provides a vivid example of servile labor exploitation that is far too common in the global economy. Affecting products such as tea, coffee, seafood, apparel, electronic devices and their components, rice, cotton, palm oil, gold, and many more, severe labor exploitation is the dark underbelly of contemporary capitalism. In the worst cases, this exploitation amounts to outright human trafficking and slavery. Global markets do not pause to reflect on the human costs inherent in the relentless pursuit of the low-cost production. Even though a growing number of consumers want to know where their products come from, rigorous and comprehensive data on slavery and child labor remains sorely lacking. 

Our examination of the Indian carpet sector is the first conclusive demonstration that it is possible to map slavery and child labor in a commodity's supply chain first-hand, and then trace that supply chain all the way to retail sale. We hope this model catalyzes similar research into numerous commodities spanning the global economy. Exposing these linkages will help to advance a far more equitable and decent global economic system.

But collecting data is only the first step. The second and more important step is to use this information as a basis for coordinated and sustained engagement with government, industry, and NGOs to effect lasting policy change that protects the vulnerable, ensures decency and dignity of work, and eliminates slavery and child labor from the world's supply chains. 

In the case of carpets, this means creating and utilizing only independent, third-party certification regimes that investigate all sub-contracted levels of the supply chain, with a focus on rooting out all of the numerous modes of slave-like exploitation documented in our project. It means investing in local communities to minimize the forces that render people vulnerable to trafficking or slavery. It means giving consumers credible assurances that the products they purchase are untainted by slavery and child labor. And it means that governments, industry, and charitable foundations must support the research required to document global supply chains and cleanse them of slave-like exploitation. 

The beautiful things we consume should not be borne from the ugliness of forced and child labor that I saw all too frequently in India's carpet sector. No one wishes to buy a carpet, eat a chocolate bar, speak on a cell phone, or wear a shirt that has been made by the broken hands of a trafficked slave, least of all a child.

 

Siddharth Kara is an expert on human trafficking and modern slavery, and the author of  "Tainted Carpets: Slavery and Child Labor in India's Hand-Made Carpet Sector," released through the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

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