To some extent, the presence of illegal child labor within the hand-knotted rug industry cannot be denied. Concentrated workshops with inadequate lighting and high levels of humidity often create harmful conditions for children and adults. One common consequence of unhealthy conditions in workshops is the development of respiratory disorders from cotton and wool fibers inhaled by weavers. A study by United Nations in June 2004 indicates that children employed in any industry are likely to be transferred into another, more lucrative industry as they grow older. Illegal child labor forces adult wages down while depriving kids of education, thereby passing down poverty, collectively, from one generation to the next.
However, the concept of “child labor” is often misunderstood within the Persian carpets and Oriental rugs industry. It is estimated that illegal child labor takes place in merely about 2% of the workforce. Attended by their parents, some children work at home on looms, often doing the work as a hobby and after school hours. To correct this difficult situation, major steps have been taken by governments, local and international institutes, as well as rug producers. Recent laws and regulations in Germany and the U.S. are among the strongest forces against child labor. Respectable rug producers provide workers with health insurance, create schools for children, and promote the overall welfare of their weavers, keeping children completely out of their workforce. The most recent step in this direction is the formation of a non-profit organization called “Rugmark (also referred to as Goodweave)”. Rug manufacturers that are willing to sign a contract with this organization guarantee that no illegal child labor will be exploited in their production facilities. They also allow unannounced inspections of their establishments to be made by “Rugmark”, whose recent efforts have been concentrated to end child labor in Nepal. In return, these rug makers receive a prestigious certificate from “Rugmark”. Rugs that show a label of this organization are imported at slightly higher prices. This “bonus” will then be spent to provide schooling and improve the overall quality of life within the rug-producing communities.
As a cooperative of 12 rug merchants, “Behbaf Co.” was established in Hamadan (Iran) about 16 years ago to improve the livelihood of rug weavers in the region. Not only “Behbaf” made sure kids stayed in school, but they also provided weavers with modern looms, hand-spun wool, natural dyes, as well as innovative patterns. The end result was good quality rugs that sold for as much as six times their traditional “Herati” patterns, with the profits strictly going back into their communities and making interest-free loans to weavers and their families. Later, the organization was downsized to four merchants who decided they would monopolize the production if they could have their own patterns and colors woven exclusively for their exports. Rug Firm has been a proud member of “Behbaf Co.” for 12 years.
Although the phenomenon is scattered around the world and seen in many countries, we can only hope that the efforts of organizations and individuals will one day eliminate it altogether. It can safely be assumed that the benefits of a child-free labor force outweighs the initial investments needed now to combat it.