Killing for carpets
-- slavery and death in
Pakistan's carpet industry

"Oriental" carpets are valued throughout the world. They are found in the homes of the well-to-do, on the floors of corporate boardrooms, and in marbled palaces of sheiks and kings. They come from Asia and the Middle East -- Iran, Kashmir, China, and the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union. They are also made in Pakistan, in factories in which children as young as four years of age, often chained to their looms, squat shoulders hunched, for 14 hours a day, six days a week, making beautifully intricate carpets by tying thousands of knots with fingers gnarled and callused from years of back-breaking labor.

In Pakistan, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 children between the ages of four and fourteen work full-time as carpet weavers. UNICEF estimates that children make up 90% of Pakistan's carpet industry. Boys aged seven to ten are preferred for their dexterity and endurance. They earn one-quarter to one-third the salary of adult weavers, and they are obedient. They are from Pakistan's poorest families, sold by their parents to put food on the table. The parents are on average paid about $200 for five years of their sons' labor. After the expenses for a child's food, training, tools, and raw materials are taken out, the balance is paid to the parents in installments as long the child is working, in some cases up to ten years.

Child labor is epidemic in Pakistan. 11-12 million children work full-time, half of them under 12 years of age. Only one-third of school-aged children attend school. The children of the poor, especially the lowest castes, begin to work as soon as they can walk, plowing fields yoked together and seeding and harvesting crops. Brick factories, sports-equipment factories, steel mills, and stone-crushing plants employ children. They have no education, no sanitation, and no health care. Children are a commodity -- bought and sold like cattle, but unlike cattle, they are smarter, and they are cheaper to run than a tractor. In fact they are treated worse than tractors or cattle.

High-quality carpets may cost $2,000 in the US -- more than a child working 14 hours a day, six days a week, could earn in ten years. These carpets are intricately-woven tapestries with more than 1,000,000 knots. Children as young as four years of age squat before looms, weaving. They are thin, malnourished, and small for their age. Their backs are curved from lack of exercise and from bending to the looms. Their hands are scarred and callused from the repetitive work. They often have difficulty breathing due to cotton dust, and from tuberculosis. The monotony of tying thousands of knots is torture, like a death sentence, which it is for many of them. Most suffer from "captive-child syndrome" which kills half of Pakistan's working children by age 12.

But this cruelty is unnecessary, and it is also illegal. Although Pakistan has continuously violated the United Nations Convention on Child Labor, in 1992, as a result of international pressure, Pakistan passed the Bonded Labor Act, which abolished indentured servitude and the "peshgi" system of payment to parents to bond children in labor. However, the law is routinely violated by the carpet manufacturers, and is not enforced by the Pakistani government.

As a result, the task of abolishing bonded labor in Pakistan has been left to the human rights community, the most well-known and effective organization being the BLLF (Bonded Labor Liberation Front), founded by Ehsan Ulla Khan. Ehsan Khan and his workers visit factories, giving the child workers information concerning their rights under the Bonded Labor Act, telling them that bonded labor has been abolished, and letting them know that they are free to leave if they wish. Since 1988, the BLLF has liberated 30,000 adults and children from brick kilns, farms, tanneries, and carpet factories. In addition, the BLLF has established its own primary schools and has placed more than 11,000 children in them.

Iqbal Masih was one of those freed from slavery in the carpet factories by the BLLF. He had been bonded to a carpet manufacturer at four years of age by his parents who could not afford to care for him. His parents were paid a meager sum for his services. He bent to his loom for six years, but at the age of ten, he was saved from his life of monotony, deformity, and ill-health by Ehsan Khan.

He proved to be a special child, became a BLLF worker, and freed many children as he himself had been freed. Ehsan Khan saw in Iqbal a child of superior intelligence and great courage, with a unique personality and energy. Under his tutelage, Iqbal became a spokesman for the bonded children of Pakistan, and traveled to the US and Europe to convince potential buyers of Pakistani carpets to withhold their money until Pakistan enforced its child labor laws. And he was very effective. In 1992, 1993, and 1994, Pakistani carpet sales fell for the first time in two decades.

But, this tale does not have a happy ending. On April 16, 1995, 13 year old Iqbal was shot to death while visiting relatives. According to Ehsan Ulla Khan, Iqbal was killed by the "carpet mafia", members of the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association, intent on maintaining bonded child labor in their factories, at any cost. The Pakistani government has done nothing to bring Iqbal's killers to justice. In fact, following Iqbal's death, the FIA, Pakistan's secret police, raided BLLF headquarters in Lahore, and the Pakistani press, the voice of the government, carried on a campaign against the BLLF and Ehsan Khan. As a result of press attacks, and intimidation and harassment by the FIA, BLLF operations, including its child welfare and education programs, have nearly shut down. The Pakistani press also initiated a campaign against Ehsan Ulla Khan, accusing him of misappropriating funds and even of murdering Iqbal. Fearing for his life, Ehsan Khan, while on a visit to Europe for the BLLF, decided to remain there. All of his efforts on behalf of Pakistan's bonded children appear to be at risk. If attacks on the BLLF do not soon stop, the BLLF, the only hope for tens-of-thousands of children, will perish, as will the memory of Iqbal Masih, the courageous carpet weaver from Pakistan.

Life and death in Third World