Battle looms

28th January 2000 at 00:00
With working conditions that would break many adults, Nepal's carpet factories are staffed by an army of child labourers. Martin Spice reports on attempts to end the exploitation.

Sunita Thapa used to be a carpet-maker. From 8am until 11pm, with 45 minutes for lunch and the same for supper, she laboured in the carpet factory, sometimes winding the yarn and other times weaving on the looms. But one thing that never changed was the aching in her limbs, the sore fingers and the constant tiredness from the long hours of repetitive work. Her fingers and legs swelled but there was no treatment and no medication - just more work. Sunita was just nine years old.

It was Sunita's mother who put her to work in the carpet factory, where she herself had a job. And to this day Sunita has no idea how much she earned, because her mother kept all the money.

Sunita's story is typical of the thousands of child workers in Nepal whose labour is born of the desperate poverty to be found in the hill villages outside the Kathmandu valley. The carpet factories employ around 2,000 children, but an unknown number are involved in supporting work such as washing wool, carding, portering, cleaning and making tea. And the carpet industry is just one of the country's child labour employers.

But children such as Sunita will not need to be rescued from their ruined childhoods if government plans can be made to work. Nepal's ministry of labour claims it is committed to ratifying International Labour Organisation convention 182 in the next session of parliament. This would force Nepal to prohibit and "take immediate action to eliminate the worst forms of child labour". While defining child labour is fraught with difficulties, ending it will be even more so - ILO figures suggest up to 2 million children in Nepal are "economically active".

Until then, Sunita's school in the small, almost medieval, farming village of Bungamati on the outskirts of Kathmandu is providing a model that defies the argument put forward by Western governments that removing child labour causes more problems than it solves. Britain's international development minister, Clare Short, summed up the dilemma when she said: "It is a tragedy that 250 million children around the world have to work rather than attend school and enjoy the sort of childhood that is their right. But we must ensure that our outrage at this situation does not do more harm than good." She is against imposing trade sanctions to end child labour, arguing that the only remedy is to remove the poverty that forces parents to send their cildren to work.

In a country such as Nepal, this can only be a long-term aim. Meanwhile, for the past two and a half years, Sunita, now 13, has lived in a hostel established by the Nepal Rugmark Foundation, a Unicef-supported organisation established in 1995 in a joint initiative between the carpet industry and non-governmental organisations concerned with children's rights. Rugmark gives its licensees a special label guaranteeing that their carpets are produced without child labour.

Sunita's new home adjoins the school where she studies with 50 other rescued carpet children and the local village children. She is given food and clothing and, her teachers say, is doing well in her lessons. Her favourite classes are English and science. She wants to take the national school certificate examination at 16 and would eventually like to train as a nurse.

Sunita is lucky that Rugmark became involved in her factory. So far it has licensed 94 producers, between them running 343 factories. To date, more than 300,000 square metres of carpet bearing the Rugmark label have been exported to Europe and the United States. To ensure that they are genuinely free of child labour, premises are regularly inspected and monitored.

It seems that everyone benefits from the scheme: carpet producers and importers gain improved markets, and children are kept out of the factories. The label is a powerful marketing tool in the West, which shunned Nepalese carpets in the mid-1990s, when the industry's use of child labour was exposed by the international media. Licensees pay for the marketing advantage that the Rugmark label bestows: producers pay a fee to finance factory inspections, and importers - mainly German and American, pay at least 1 per cent of the export price to finance social and rehabilitation programmes for children. So while the programme is currently part-funded by Unicef and other major donors, it has within it the seeds of financial sustainability.

Cliff Myers, Unicef education chief in Nepal, sees Sunita Thapa's school and hostel as a success story. "It works," he says, "because there is a real sense of commitment from the people running the carpet factories. This scheme came about voluntarily, not as a result of externally imposed legislation. The school at Bungamati is successful because the local community wanted it there. It benefits not only the rescued carpet children but the poor of the village as well. It may be a little way off yet, but such models as this could be used to eliminate child labour in the Kathmandu carpet industry."

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