Your Beautiful Indian Rug Was Probably Made By Child Labor
If you’ve bought a hand-made Indian rug, it’s quite likely that it was woven by children, and quite often by slave labor, according to a new study by FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.
The report, Tainted Carpets: Slavery and Child Labor in India’s Hand-Made Carpet Sector,documents over 3,200 cases across nine states in India and found several hundred cases, each, of forced labor, bonded labor, child labor and human trafficking, at carpet factories run by exporters who ship these rugs to some of the biggest retail stores in the U.S.
The report, written by Harvard adjunct faculty member Siddharth Kara, documents the supply chain of tainted carpets from the point of production to the point of retail sale in the United States. According to the report, some of the retailers who sell carpets from those exporters and importers include Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Target TGT -1.3%, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, and IKEA , amongst others.
Retailers, when contacted, said they were strictly against all forms of child labor and would look into the issues raised in the report. (You can read their detailed responses below.)
Child labor is an old problem in India as I found out when I was reporting on the topic for a story for Forbes back in 2008. I traveled across the country from Monsanto’s MON -0.02% cotton fields in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to the slums of Delhi to sandstone quarries of Rajasthan to the carpet belt near Varanasi. At every place I met children hard at work, picking cotton buds, sticking sparkling stones to picture frames and pen holders, chiseling stone into cobbles and pavers and weaving carpets. Some were as young as five or six while others had spent their adolescence in these jobs, living in extreme poverty and usually away from their families.
So while this is not new, it’s worrying that despite ample scrutiny, child labor is still so prevalent in India.
India’s carpet industry has traditionally been focused in the cities of Bhadohi, Mirzapur, and Varanasi in southeast Uttar Pradesh, the country’s ost populous, and amongst the poorest, state. After years of scrutiny although cases of use of child labor in those areas have dropped, the practice has not ended. Rather, it has shifted to other cities, a few hundred kilometers away, around the three-city area of Shahjahanpur, Badaun, and Hardoi.
An eight-member team of researchers led by Kara found that in this area child labor was rampant, chronic, and almost entirely in deeply rural Muslim villages. The vast majority of the children doing the carpet weaving were females, unlike the rest of the state where where the weavers are usually young boys.
“An astonishing level of outright slavery and child labor for carpet weaving appears to be all but the norm in the region in and around this new carpet belt,” the report said.
Researchers found that entire villages of Muslims were held in severe debt bondage for carpet weaving in rural areas around the cities of Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh and Morena and Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. Muslims also received the lowest average wages of $1.58 for an eight-hour workday–or $0.20 an hour–followed by Hindus of the lowest caste at $1.65 or $0.21 an hour.
Kara’s team also found cases where families sold their children to contractors in exchange for jobs at a carpet factory. The child had to then work off the advance of roughly $40 before parents were promised some share in the income from the child’s labor. However, in all cases the children were subsequently charged fees for living quarters, food and water, medicines, and deductions were also made for errors in the work, the report says. The children reported wages of typically $0.11 an hour–allegedly because they were still paying the dues on their advances. Some or all of these wages were ostensibly sent to the parents, but there was no way to confirm whether this was indeed the case, the report says.
The average advance taken by the bonded laborers who were documented was $85, the highest was for $150, usually to pay for a wedding.
In all cases, the workers reported that they could not leave the carpet-weaving job until they were told that their debts had been repaid but most had little idea as to how much debt they had remaining. The bonded laborers reported dealing with severe restrictions on their movement and alternate employment, working excessive hours, insufficient food and medical care for injuries, and being heavily pressured to work even when ill or
injured, according to the report.
Kara’s team conducted this research across nine states, covering areas where 95% of handmade carpets are woven. It found that a minimum of roughly 45% of all workers in India’s hand-made carpet sector suffer from forced labor under Indian law; roughly 37% suffer from forced labor under international law; roughly 28% from bonded labor; roughly 20% from child labor; and roughly 4% from human trafficking. Since India’s carpet sector employs about two million people, Kara suggests that within that workforce there are approximately 900,000 forced laborers and approximately 400,000 child laborers.
The researchers found that many children worked, ate, and slept inside rural carpet shacks, rarely, if ever, stepping out for weeks or months and were often on the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse.
WHAT THE COMPANIES SAY (Their responses have been edited for clarity and brevity):
Crate and Barrel:
“Crate and Barrel is deeply concerned about these allegations. We take them very seriously as they involve a direct violation of our code of conduct and do not support our company values. We are actively investigating these claims and have already reached out to the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. We are also conducting an internal audit of all of our vendors in India.”
“IKEA has been sourcing from India for 26 years and is committed to responsible sourcing. We source hand woven carpets from four suppliers in India, however we do not currently source any hand knotted or hand tufted carpets from the country. Today we work with just four suppliers making hand woven carpets in India. These suppliers receive regular un-announced and announced audits by IKEA auditors and third party auditors to check compliance with our code of conduct, IWAY. The four carpet suppliers we work with in India were all audited during the past year and were approved according to IWAY. IWAY includes strict requirements on labour rights, working conditions, safety and environmental protection. It includes a complete ban on forced and bonded labour and child labour and explains how we will always act in the best interests of children. We require all our home furnishing suppliers to be approved according to our code of conduct or they are phased out of our supply chain.”
Williams Sonoma Inc.:
“The conditions described in the report are extremely concerning, intolerable, and in conflict with our corporate values. Williams-Sonoma Inc. has zero tolerance for human trafficking, child or forced labor in our global supply chains. We work diligently to choose the right suppliers and to ensure that they adhere to a strict set of standards, ethics and practices. We have an ongoing approach to auditing our factories on a regular basis. When we learned of the report, we immediately assembled a high-level task force to review the possibility of any of these conditions existing within our rug vendor base. The first step we took was to dispatch our global compliance team to India to conduct additional audits of our rug factories. Thus far we have found no evidence that our factories are implicated in these practices. We will continue to engage with our vendors on this matter.”
“Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s will not tolerate human trafficking and slavery in our supply chain. We will quickly investigate any such situations, and take swift and decisive action against any supplier for non-compliance with our policies and standards, resulting in possible termination of the business relationship. We are aware of the report published by the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard and stand ready to investigate any specific allegations of rugs supplied to us that involved slavery or human trafficking in the supply chain. Note that the majority of rugs sold by our company are machine-made — not hand-made. Also note that Macy’s is the only national retailer in the U.S. that offers a collection of hand-made rugs certified by GoodWeave, an international organization that works to ensure rugs made by hand in Nepal and India are free of child labor.”
Neiman Marcus Group:
“Neiman Marcus Group does not import rugs for resale.”
Harvard University’s Kara disagrees and says: “We can confirm that Neiman Marcus sells carpets made in India that are linked to some of the main importers and exporters we documented to have used varying degrees of at least one of the five forms of exploitative labor practices described in the report.”
“Target has always held itself — and our partners — accountable to the highest standards of ethical business practices. As stated in our Standards of Vendor Engagement, we will not knowingly work with any company that does not comply with our ethical standards.”