Rug Weaving and Child Labor….
Since the 1920’s we’ve traveled regularly to weaving areas throughout the Middle East. These days we make two or three month-long trips each year. There are two basic reasons for all this travel on our part:
- The nearer we get to the loom, the less we pay for the rug.
- By traveling to the weaving village we get to see exactly who is making the rug, and we have the chance to inspect the quality of the materials they’re using.
In many ways, this second reason is more important than the first.
Americans who have never traveled beyond Europe are sometimes surprised to learn that items like labor unions, the 40 hour work week, and government-sponsored unemployment insurance are recent Western inventions. Most of the people in the world still live in agrarian societies much like the America of the 1820’s and 30’s. As in 19th Century America, people in most of today’s agrarian societies face a life of physical labor as subsistence farmers. Crops are planted by hand, harvested by hand, and processed and stored for local consumption. Families produce as many daily necessities themselves as they can; others can be bartered for in the nearby village. Cash is always difficult to earn. If you have a bumper rice crop this year, so does everyone else in your whole district: you can’t sell your surplus to your neighbor because he has as much extra rice as you do.
In most rug making areas, weaving is a way for a farming family to produce a product which they can sell for cash. If you’re a good weaver, it doesn’t matter how many other people in your village make rugs: there will still be a cash market for your rug because it is better made than the rest.
The rub in this whole scheme for us in the West is that in these areas children are almost always expected to work alongside their parents to contribute to the support of the family (in the same way that farm kids in the US have always been expected to help with the chores). Kids do jobs appropriate to their ages. Younger children watch after the sheep or goats; older children help in the fields with whatever work needs to be done. Even basic government schools usually cost money for materials, and fancier schools cost money for admission fees, uniforms, and books. Rarely is there the money to send children to school, and besides, they’re needed to help do the family’s work.
Some of the work children help with is carpet weaving. Although in a completely beneficent world anyone would prefer to see children everywhere in the world have a Western-style childhood with the opportunity for a sophisticated education, we do not see child labor within the family unit as a horrible thing (“within the family unit” is the crucial phrase). Weaving learned from a mother, grandmother, father or brother is a specialized skill which can produce a cash income for the weaver and the family. If the choice is between stoop labor in the fields and weaving, there is no question but that weaving is by far the better life. For years we’ve supported the “Care & Fare” program organized in India to oversee child labor and provide at least an elementary education for the children of weaving families.