Look down. The fruits of child labor may well lie beneath your feet. Nearly 300,000 children, some as young as 4 years old, are used in India, Nepal, and Pakistan to weave handmade carpets for the U.S. and European markets. The children are often beaten and forced to work long hours with scant food—and girls are routinely recruited into the trade only to be sold into the sex industry a few years later.
The nonprofit group RugMark has already rescued more than 3,000 young laborers and is trying to do away with the worldwide market for rugs woven by children by inspecting factories and affixing special labels to rugs made without child labor. RugMark believes its approach, together with stepped-up law enforcement, is making a difference: Children now make up 1 to 3 percent of the Nepalese rug industry's labor force, down from some 11 percent in 1996.
Although RugMark rugs are available from more than 1,000 retailers (including Design Within Reach and Odegard), many of this country's largest home furnishings stores still have not joined the campaign. But right now, consumers and retailers have a chance to permanently alter the economics of child labor. RugMark-certified rugs currently account for just 2 percent of those sold in the United States; when that number hits 15 percent, RugMark predicts the market will reach a tipping point and rug producers will find that exploiting children doesn't pay.