RUGMARK Way of Restoring Childhood in Nepal
Background and rationale
The modern carpet industry has about 40 years history. The unique hand-knotting technique of weaving Tibetan carpets was initially utilised in weaving oriental carpets that were sold initially as art de fact in the local market. The carpet manufacturing activity gradually took a shape of an important industry as export grew rapidly during mid 1980s.
The carpet industry attracted thousands of rural workers both children and adult alike. Rampant use of children often in exploitative conditions in different activities of carpet production, became an issue during 1994 95, resulting in plummeting demand of Nepalese carpets in its only major market — Germany. The Nepalese carpet industry and concerned governmental and non-governmental organisations felt an urgent need to address the issue.
The above phenomenon was happening in the aftermath of promulgation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 and restoration of democracy in Nepal. The RUGMARK initiative had already been conceptualised and established in 1994 in India and Germany as a social labelling initiative basically to combat child labour problem in carpet industries.
The RUGMARK Initiative was the natural choice for Nepal as well. Nepal RUGMARK Foundation was established in December 1995 as a member organisation of RUGMARK International e.V., the apex RUGMARK body. RUGMARK has few unique features that differentiate it from other similar initiatives. They are; a two dimensional collaboration (the North – South and the carpet industry – child right NGOs), independent inspection and monitoring programme, labelling individual carpets, long-term and meaningful rehabilitation of displaced carpet children, etc.
NRF’s first and major objective is to create child labour free environment in the Nepalese carpet industry with a meaningful rehabilitation programme for displaced carpet children. Broadly the objective is to work for socially and environmentally acceptable business practices including minimum wage for carpet workers. No time frame as such, has been determined for meeting the objectives. The obvious target groups are working and potential carpet child labourers and other carpet workers.
The RUGMARK approach is non-imposing or “business-like”. Both Licensing and certification are voluntary. Furthermore, NRF takes a consultative and friendly approach in inspecting carpet factories and rescuing children. Though child labour is illegal, legal provisions and mechanism are not the first resorts for NRF when it comes to dealing with the carpet entrepreneurs, managers and workers.
Activities and results
Nepal RUGMARK Foundation commenced Licensing RUGMARK, the certification trademark for child labour free carpets, to carpet manufacturers and exporters from November 1996. At the same time, child labourers were removed from the carpet factories of the Licensees and that of their suppliers, and enrolled in RUGMARK Rehabilitation Centres established one after another in collaboration with four NGOs. UNICEF, GTZ (German Agency for Technical Co-operation) and AAFLI (Asian American Free Labour Institute) helped NRF financially and otherwise. The first two organisations are still helping NRF, but will completely pull out their support from this year.
NRF’s inspection of carpet factories continued. Initially some factory people looked at the RUGMARK Inspectors with some reservations, but slowly they realised that the inspectors were to help everyone and not really to trouble anyone. Soon they became known as saviours of child labourers. In the mean time, carpet importers and retailers mainly in Germany and the USA were convinced and started labelling their carpets. The number of RUGMARK Licensees in Nepal is ever increasing and the trend of child labour encounter continues to decline. New factories joining RUGMARK have fewer children working and the early licensed factories also receive fewer children. Frequent surprise visits by Inspectors, RUGMARK signboards in carpet factories, the overall awareness created by RUGMARK and other organisations, etc. could reduce the extent of use of child labour in the carpet industry from some 12% to 2 or 3% in about 3 years.
By the end of August 2000, NRF has signed Licence Agreements with 127 exporters and manufacturers, and so far one Licence Agreement has been revoked. Under the existing 127 Licensees, there are 389 carpet factories of the Licensees or of their suppliers. This is about 50% to 60% of the total carpet factories, almost all the large ones being already with RUGMARK. Though a small fraction of the total export, certification of child labour free carpets has been increasing. At present, some 8 to 10% of the total export of carpets are RUGMARK labelled.
In the last four years’ period, NRF removed 385 child labourers. Out of them, 226 are already re-united with their families. Out of them, 83 are re-united with long term RUGMARK support. Unless the situation becomes favourable for the children’s education, NRF will continue supporting the children till they are 18 years of age or complete the education of SLC. Twenty-five children were re-united after completing vocational training. Currently, 151 children are living in the four Rehab. Centres studying in different grades, as high as nine. Twenty-three grown up and interested children are also enrolled in different vocational training. For orphan children, NRF seeks sponsorship for their ling term support, as well.
To go one step further, from this year, NRF is launching new social programme in carpet factories. Being started as pilot projects, the programme will include a day care cum NFE centre for 100 children of carpet workers, sponsored education scheme for 20 needy children of carpet workers and awareness programme for carpet workers in areas ranging from child rights and child education to sanitation, family planning and HIV-AIDS.
The best practices from this initiative
RUGMARK is an integrated and collaborative initiative to combat child labour problem in carpet production and trade. It has all the elements to serve interests of different stakeholders linked in the chain of carpet production, export, import, retailing and consumption or use of carpets. RUGMARK Licensing for the trademark, removal and rehabilitation of child laborers with long-term and meaningful rehabilitation, inspection and monitoring of carpet factories, advocacy for improvement of working conditions and environmental protection, certification of individual child labour free carpets, and voluntary contribution by Licensees based on the extent of certification, etc. leave everybody’s interests served without being hurt. Moreover, the initiative is expected to be financially self-sustainable in due course of time with potential capability to conduct more social or environmental programmes in case of surplus funds.
Just because the initiative is integrated, meticulous and collaborative involving stakeholders with conflicting interests, at the beginning some people looked at the concept with skepticism about its successful implementation. After 4 to 5 years of actual work in different countries, RUGMARK has been already proven to be a pragmatic and self-sustainable concept. RUGMARK Foundations or representative Officers are already established in ten countries in South Asia, West Europe and North America.
This initiative not only restores childhood in the life of the carpet children, because of the monitoring, it prevents thousands of children becoming child labourers dropping out of schools. Researches have shown that a substantial percentage of children become carpet workers due to reasons other than acute poverty. Moreover, RUGMARK is a marketing tool as well. Hence, it is instrumental in overall socio-economic development of the nation by boosting export of carpets and raising awareness on the rights of the child along with other social or environmental issues in a sustainable manner.
Nepal RUGMARK Foundation has been successful towards meeting its objectives to a great extent. However, the road ahead could be bumpier. NRF has to expand its Licence coverage for elimination of child labour from the carpet industry. At the same time, it has to expand its criteria making the minimum wage a must for certification. Unless at least minimum wage for carpet workers is ensured, there is always a possibility that workers’ children will become child labourers or will not really go to school, as expected.
Another immediate challenge for NRF is attainment of financial self-sustainability. The understanding between NRF and the donors is that NRF attains financial sustainability with a couple of years. Currently, NRF’s own resource is only enough to cover about 50% of the total expenses. In its endeavour towards eliminating child labour from the carpet industry, NRF must find ways to increase its level of certification to at least 25% of the total carpet export from Nepal.