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The Story Behind Your Carpet

The history of the rugs probably comes across as a bland topic, but you may want to look more closely at the origins of such carpets the next time you venture out to the store. If that rug is from India, there’s a high likelihood that it was made by child slaves. Forced labor in the 21st century? Most argue that this is incredulous– India banned child labor in 1986. Well, India is evidently living in the past, because exploitation in the carpet industry has been established as a certainty and could be responsible for that carpet in your living room.

The Issue

In August of 2010, a CNN article was released detailing the corruption in the Northern India carpet belt, drawing attention to how illegal child labor practices were an integral routine in the export of these handmade rugs to Europe and the United States. The government of India event went so far as to state that child labor no longer existed in the country’s hand-woven carpet sector, and society turned a blind eye to what was believed to be a nonexistent problem. Yet, here we are four years later, and the youth-labor monstrosity still persists.

Back in January of this year, Harvard’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Siddharth Kara, revealed that an alarming number of carpets sold in the US are still woven by exploited workers in India, and the atrocities have only gotten worse.  Major U.S. retailers imported handmade carpets from India worth $306 million in 2012. In the United States, these laborers would be given at least the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. In India? Try $0.21. Adults are essentially victims of penny-wage slavery, and children earn less than half of this.


Children and adults involved in this carpet corruption clearly receive abysmal wages, but this is the least of their problems. Carpet weavers, especially children, face numerous health ailments as a result of hazardous working conditions, particularly in situations of severe labor exploitation. Forced laborers and those in similar conditions are often coerced to work twelve or more hours a day, allowed to eat only two meals a day, live and sleep in the same place as they work, suffer beatings and abuse, and are frequently injured in the weaving process. Common ailments for these workers include:

  1. Spinal deformation
  2. Muscle pain and atrophy
  3. Malnutrition
  4. Pulmonary disease due to thread dust inhalation
  5. Cuts and infections
  6. Psychological trauma
Bihar, a child carpet weaver at age 14, gives us an inside look at the problem:
We work from seven in the morning until 10 at night. I sleep on that mat over there. I miss my family. I want to go home but the owner will not let us leave.

Moving Forward

India is home to almost half of the world’s modern slaves. Forced labor is a problem, but it becomes increasingly necessary to take immediate action when this extends to children, who make up 20% of this labor force. Poverty is the root cause of these problems, but rather than stand idle and try to tackle a huge structural evil, we might be better off looking for short-term incremental fixes.
A boycott of Indian carpets has been considered, but this will hurt the impoverished who depend on these meager wages. Much like India’s environmental laws,  we find that stringent government enforcement of already-existing legalities is the main culprit; a crackdown on India’s industrial protocols must be undertaken first if we want any chance to alleviate the youth-labor problem.
As for the carpet in your living room, let that serve as a reminder that every object has a story to it. This story, however, is not finished. The best thing we can do is to spread awareness, so that when you explain your rug’s story in the future, maybe it will have a happy ending.
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