The Ethics of Rugs

Can designers help eliminate child labor in the rug industry? The Rugmark Foundation thinks so.

Last month Rugmark Foundation USA, a nonprofit labor-monitoring organization, launched a yearlong campaign to raise awareness about the use of illegal child labor in the luxury rug trade. They’re letting interior designers, architects, and consumers know that they can help preserve childhood and safeguard the civil liberties of craftspeople in three of the world’s largest rug-weaving communities: Nepal, India, and Pakistan. “The message of the campaign is not ‘You’re wrong for not buying a Rugmark rug,’ but ‘You can do right and make a difference by asking questions and learning about the conditions for weavers throughout the industry,’” executive director Nina Smith says.

Founded in 1994, Rugmark grew out of the efforts of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude. “They’re doing something that Rugmark doesn’t do—investigating the disappearance of children and conducting raids to rescue them,” Smith says. The coalition was run by Kailash Satyarthi, who realized that the only way to create systemic change was to use the market to dictate better working conditions for the weavers.

Rugmark was conceived as a regulated label that through carefully orchestrated inspections would certify rugs made without the use of child labor. To date they have removed more than 3,000 children from the looms and placed them in schools, some sponsored or built using licensing fees paid by importers. Despite these achievements, it remains a challenge for American buyers to distinguish rugs that have been properly monitored by Rugmark inspectors. Often, licensed exporters don’t receive the Rugmark label because their importers are reluctant to join in, and both groups must sign on before a label can officially be adhered to rugs.

“The importers have all kinds of excuses,” says Stephanie Odegard, an importer and member of Rugmark’s board of directors who claims that it wasn’t until demand soared in the early 1990s that illegal child labor became a problem in Nepal. “Interior designers have to start asking questions,” Odegard says. “Our biggest challenge is to get more importers to join, but the only way to do that is to build consumer demand.”

However, the industry is full of skeptics. According to the executive director of the Oriental Rug Importers Association, Lucille Laufer, many importers feel that child labor is not an issue. “Local infrastructure does not permit effective monitoring,” she says. “Sometimes these rugs are made in somebody’s home, and children work to support the family unit.” While this may be true in certain cases, a 1997 study by the U.S. Department of Labor revealed that around one million children worked in Nepal, India, and Pakistan’s hand-knotted rug industry. Recent estimates put that figure at 300,000—possibly a testament to the success of Rugmark’s efforts. “The real goal,” Smith says, “is to create a marketplace that doesn’t tolerate child labor and sends that message right down the supply chain.”

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