Carpet baggers get wise to child labour

THE FEAR of losing markets has finally made Indian carpet exporters fall in line with a move to regulate child labour, which is prevalent extensively in carpet-making and some other industries. After a prolonged period of disagreement, the All India Carpet Manufacturers' Association dropped its insistence on "self-certification" and there appears to be consensus on the need for a certification and labelling system to prove products have not been made by children.

The proposed certification system and the change of heart by the exporters come about because of pressure from anti-child labour groups in India and abroad. The US senate is considering a bill that seeks to ban import of products made by children. However, the proposed Child Labour Deterrence Act, 1992, requires US traders to prove they have taken "reasonable steps" to ensure imported articles are not made by children.

Voluntary organisations in India campaigning against child labour denounce granting such certification rights to parties like importers with vested interests. Says Kailash Satyarthi of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM), "This is a serious lacunae in the bill. In principle, individuals and agencies associated with trade and manufacture should not be allowed to certify that products are free of child labour."

The bill will have a far-reaching impact on other industries besides the carpet manufacturing sector. Efforts have been made to persuade senator Tom Harkin, who moved the bill, to alter this provision. During a recent visit to the US, Satyarthi asked Harkin to allow certification by an independent body consisting of exporters, manufacturers, NGOs, trade unions, labour officials and concerned bodies of the United Nations. Whether the bill will be modified to incorporate this suggestion is not known.

Nonetheless, the Indian government, which is under pressure to protect its Rs 750-crore carpet export business, is scurrying around to convince importers it is serious about eradicating child labour. The ministries concerned are at each other's throats, trying to modify rules and laws and get a promotional campaign going.

Recently, the textiles secretary asked the labour ministry to expedite amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 because "the Act does not have a deterrent effect". The labour ministry argues it is finalising the proposed amendments "in a comprehensive manner in all sectors of the economy" (See box).

At present, child labour is regulated only in three industries and prohibited in 14. In June, the labour ministry was to have issued a notification to regulate child labour in all sectors.

The Uttar Pradesh government is also pressuring the Union government to amend the Act. The Mirzapur-Bhadohi area in the state is the country's biggest carpet-making centre. The UP government has approached the state judiciary, asking for executive magistrates to be empowered to prosecute in cases of Child Labour Act violations.

But opponents of child labour are sceptical of government action in tackling the matter. Complains Swami Agnivesh of the BMM, "The ground reality in the carpet belt is still very grave."

The scepticism arises from repeated raids by the BMM and other groups, which have shown that child labourers still work in the carpet looms of Mirzapur-Bhadohi. In what the BMM calls a "historic raid" on Awasaanpur village in the last week of May, about 150 children were rescued. Not surprisingly, Satyarthi dismisses all fresh attempts to "make amends" as a mere eyewash.