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Harvard Study Finds Abuses in India's Carpet Industry

By Steven H. Tenzer, Crimson Staff Writer

The largest ever first-hand investigation into slavery and child labor in India’s handmade carpet sector has challenged claims that slavery and child labor have been removed from the industry.

The investigation, “Tainted Carpets: Slavery and Child Labor in India’s Hand-Made Carpet Sector,” was released by Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights Jan. 28. The study explores 3,215 cases of illegal forced labor in nine states in northern India that contain production sites belonging to 172 carpet exporters.

The report’s author, Siddarth Kara, is a fellow with the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and adjunct lecturer on public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He used teams of field researchers—whose names were withheld for safety—to document firsthand cases of severe labor exploitation.

“The working conditions uncovered were nothing short of sub-human,” the report found. “Factories and shacks were cramped, filthy, unbearably hot...filled with stagnant and dust-filled air, and contaminated with grime and mold. Some sites were so filthy, pungent, and dangerous that the researchers were afraid to enter due to the risk to their safety.”

“The most disheartening thing is that so much exploitation still occurs in broad daylight,” Kara said.

According to Kara, entire villages were held in bondage due to petty loans and young children were forced to work in factories instead of attending schools.

With a comprehensive, industry-wide study, Kara said he hopes retailers will improve their labor standards. The report states numerous recommendations for retail carpet exports in an effort to eliminate these labor practices.

The report states, “the results…are solely intended to catalyze new initiatives to reduce the suffering that exists in a significant portion of carpet production in India.”

Kara said that he wants to see improvements such as, “enforcing basic labor law and standards, paying the full minimum wage, raising the minimum wage, ensuring children are in school, eradicating death bondage, prosecuting people breaking the law and elevating the level of supply chain investigation.”

Retailers have had mixed reactions to the new report. Kara said he has received responses of all kinds—some companies trying to improve existing labor practices and others denying there is any issue.

Kara also gave recommendations to everyday consumers: “Be increasingly aware of the kinds of conditions under which many of the things we buy every day may be produced or manufactured on the other side of the world,” he said.

He said he hopes “to see a world where retailers can say more conclusively, ‘These carpets are untainted by any of these offenses.’”

—Staff writer Steven H. Tenzer can be reached at stenzer@college.harvard.edu.

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