SUNS  4355 Tuesday 19 January 1999

Nepal: Carpet industry under scrutiny for flouting laws

Kathmandu, Jan 13 (IPS/Suman Pradhan) -- The carpet industry in Nepal, one of the country's top foreign currency earners, has begun the year in a controversy that it can least afford.

Police raids last week in the capital city Kathmandu on wool-  spinning factories that supply wool to carpet weavers have led to the recovery of child workers, some as young as 13 years old.

Nepal's newspapers have reported in minute detail how police rescued more than two dozen, half-starved children from factories, often no more than small, dark and dingy rooms.

The children lived among the machines. "We weren't allowed out in the open for two months," complained Ram Bahadur Rai, 15. "We were paid poorly," he added.

Factory owners are accused of violating Nepal's laws which ban child labour in a country where per capita income is just 200 dollars a year and children work to supplement meagre family incomes.
Under the Children's Act of 1992 it is a crime to hire workers below the age of 17. The Act protects the rights of children to basic health care and education which were denied to them in the factories.

The controversy has erupted just when carpet manufacturers are recovering from a crippling export downturn in the mid-nineties.

In the last fiscal year, earnings had risen to 130 million dollars.

In 1993-94, the hand-woven carpet industry in Nepal received a crushing blow on account of several factors: widespread reports of rampant use of child labour in the carpet industry; sub-standard carpets and an economic downturn in Europe - the major export market.

Out of more than 3,000 carpet manufacturers all over the Himalayan kingdom in late 1993, two-thirds have gone out of business, trade figures show.

Police have handed some of the rescued children for rehabilitation to Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), a non-governmental organisation (NGO).
A few have already been sent back to their parents, and the search for the families of the others is continuing, CWIN officials say.

The NGO says the police raids only revealed what it has known for a long time - that the practice was widespread in Nepal, despite efforts to control child labour. CWIN says its own studies show that 50 % of workers in carpet factories are children.

But the figure is disputed. Other surveys listed in a report released last year by the Kathmandu office of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) put child labour estimates at up to 8 % of the total workforce.

Meanwhile, an official of the Central Carpet Industries Association (CCIA), a trade group, said in their defence, "We can't deny that child labour exists in our industry, but it is nowhere near the levels of 1993-94. Exporters are aware of the stigma attached to the practice."

Carpet weaving factories and ancillary industries directly employ about 100,000 people, according to CCIA secretary C.L. Sharma. That is a far cry from 1994 when the industry employed more than 300,000, he said.

Along with tourism and garment exports, the industry is one of Nepal's major export businesses, netting over $179 million in 1994, the peak year. But then exports went into a slide, recovering last year to $130 million. CCIA officials said it was an improvement.

Several organisations to weed out child labour have sprung up in Kathmandu over the last two years, including the government's `Child Labour Free Certification Coordination Committee' set up in 1994.

In 1995, ILO also began funding programmes under its International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour.

Such activities have contributed immensely to raising awareness among factory owners, says Nepal Rugmark Foundation, an affiliate of Rugmark International which has offices in over half a dozen carpet manufacturing countries including India and Pakistan.

Now more than 280 carpet manufacturers are registered with Rugmark for the coveted Rugmark seal which indicates children are not employed. The seal is granted after rigorous inspection of factories and their ancillary suppliers, Naryan Bhattarai, Rugmark's inspection promotion
programme supervisor, said.

A part of the export proceeds are ploughed back to Rugmark by the exporters and foreign buyers to run schools and rehabilitation centres. Rugmark runs four of the many centres in Kathmandu run by different organisations.

"Rugmark strongly feels that children should not be allowed to work in carpet factories," says Bhattarai. "That is why we are running centres that rehabilitate those children displaced by the new awareness about child labour that is slowly building up in Nepal."