Help at hand for the slave weavers robbed of childhood: Conditions in the Indian carpet industry are finally pricking the conscience of shoppers in the West, writes Tim McGirk in New Delhi (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online

A CHILD'S pain is knotted deep into the intricate designs of many Indian hand-woven carpets now displayed in the January sales of the fashionable British high-street stores.

Take, for instance, the case of the Queen's new carpet. Now decorating a hall at Windsor Castle, this richly patterned carpet was bought by her more than a year ago through Harrods. It was woven by dozens of Indian children, some as young as seven, who had been sold by their parents to loom owners as bonded labourers. Harrods bought the carpet from the loom owners of Mirzapur, near the northern Indian temple city of Varanasi, for more than pounds 17,000 and reportedly resold it to the Queen for pounds 47,000.

The child weavers, who spent months tying each tiny knot of the carpet individually on the harp-like strings of the loom, were lucky to get a meal and a few rupees a day. The children are supposed to be paid for each knot, but often the money is pocketed by the loom owner.

Askari Imam, an official of the Children's Emancipation Society in New Delhi, which estimates the number of child weavers in India at more than 150,000, said: 'It's like a slave's bazaar. There are touts who go to Bihar - it's one of the most impoverished spots of the world - and they buy these children to work in the looms. After the tenth or eleventh child, there's little emotional attachment that the parents feel towards the child.'

The parents also know that however miserable a life at the looms may be for their son or daughter, it will at least save them from dying of starvation.

'Some of these children are bonded labourers for life. And their life is very short. If they try to escape they are caught and beaten,' said Mr Imam.

Britain is the third biggest buyer of India's hand-woven carpets, copied from traditional Persian designs brought to Mirzapur in the 16th century by the Moghul emperor, Akbar. The main buyers of India's dollars 250m (pounds 163m) carpet exports are the United States and Germany, but both countries will soon pass tough new laws on goods made by child labour. A US bill, expected to be enforced by the Clinton administration, will ban products made abroad by children. Imports to the US will require certificates, endorsed by human rights groups, proving that child labour is not used. The Americans want fines imposed on law breakers but the German idea is to give the consumer a choice: hand-made goods from India and other developing countries which are not crafted by children will bear a sticker saying so. A total ban, the Germans say, would make thousands of Indian families even poorer.

'This will be a major setback for the Indian carpet-makers,' said Mr Imam. India has laws banning child labour but they are seldom enforced. As a start, though, the New Delhi government is registering all looms around Mirzapur to find out how many children are toiling in the industry.

Although Britain is not yet considering legislation similar to the US and Germany's, some British businessmen have been at the forefront of improving the plight of the child weavers. When Roland Garland took over as chairman of the Scottish Heritable Trust in 1986, he found the trust owned a share in an Indian carpet-making company. 'He'd heard about the exploitation of child labour and came out to see for himself,' said Mr Imam. 'Garland was quite horrified by what he saw.'

Mr Garland raised pounds 30,000 from other British carpet importers to set up schools for the child weavers. Now Britain, the European Community and the International Labour Organisation are expanding programmes to held the children. Some human rights activists in the Mirzapur area have prodded the police into raiding the looms and freeing the children. But, once they are returned to their homes in Bihar, parents who cannot feed them invariably sell them back to the loom owners.

The tack taken by the Children's Emancipation Society has been to set up schools near the looms so the children can study in the mornings and weave in the afternoons.

'We give them a meal, 100 rupees (pounds 1.90) a month, some vocational training, and a little time for sports. Otherwise, these boys and girls are having to weave away their childhoods,' said Mr Imam, adding: 'After a little education, these children are starting to assert their rights. They're demanding at least 30 rupees (60p ) a day for weaving.'


An article on conditions in the Indian carpet industry (Independent, 2 January) referred to a new carpet said to have been supplied by Harrods.

We have been assured by Harrods that the store had no connection whatsoever with the carpet and that for some years Harrods has taken regular steps to ensure that the carpets sold to it by its suppliers are not made by child labour.

We accept these assurances and apologise unreservedly to Harrods for any embarrassment our article may have caused. We also accept that Harrods and its proprietors have long been devoted to children's charities at home and abroad and we have accordingly agreed to make donations to the Children's Emancipation Society in New Delhi, which works on behalf of child labourers, ChildLine, which works to eradicate child abuse in this country and the Karim Centre for Meningitis Research at Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea Hospital, London, W6 in recognition of our error.

(Photograph omitted)