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World View : Trading With Tiny Hands : Nepal and many other poor countries have become dependent on child labor.

July 12, 1994|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BHAKTAPUR, Nepal — That chic and sumptuous high-pile carpet that adorns the lawyer's office in Stuttgart, Germany, or the beachfront condo in Redondo Beach may have begun its life here on a high-backed vertical loom worked by Meena, 13.

Six days a week, the village girl and seven friends, who sleep in a single cramped, dark room in a dirty dormitory whose halls smell of urine, get up at 6 a.m. and, after gulping down a meager breakfast of warm tea, begin work.

Meena, a small girl with straight black hair who is timid as a rabbit, sits on a rough plank, facing her loom. Guided by a chart on which each dye color bears a different number code, she begins to tie strands of triple-ply yarn to make that most luxurious of household items, the hand-knotted carpet.

Her small fingers flying, again and again she ties knots--an average of 60 to each square inch.

At 9 p.m., after hourlong breaks for lunch and dinner that she and her friends have to speedily cook for themselves, the 13-year-old's workday is over, 14 1/2 tedium-filled hours after it began.

Tomorrow will be much the same for her, hunched over the loom in a long, dim room where the floor is made of filthy bricks and where the only sounds as dozens of youngsters work in silence are the foreman's cries and the thud of metal mallets swung by the children to pack the knots more densely.

Meena, daughter of peasants from Nepal's impoverished hills, doesn't know it, but she is a valuable cog in her country's economy. Just as the bedrock of the Old South was cotton and tobacco and England's fortune was spun in the "dark satanic mills" of the Midlands, the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal has come to count on carpets.

And, at the same time, like many other developing countries, this nation has rapidly grown dependent on cheap, easily exploitable child labor. An estimated 160,000 Nepalese children work in carpet mills, sometimes alongside their parents at home looms but often in appalling conditions of servitude little better than slavery, according to the Child Workers of Nepal Assn., a social organization.

"Hand-knotted carpets are made out of the sweat and blood of children," charges Suman Srivastva, director of an Indian training institute for children freed from bonded labor.

Nepal is not unusual. According to a study just released by the world's largest trade union federation, 100 to 200 million children ages 4 to 15 work in streets, factories, mines and rock quarries from Brazil to the Philippines--often under dangerous conditions and for a miserable wage or no compensation at all.

The Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which claims to represent 120 million workers in the United States and 123 other countries, calls such widespread child labor "the best-kept secret" of modern commerce.

All too often, the federation found, minors in developing countries are exploited to make goods that are then shipped for sale to richer lands, including the United States, whose youngest citizens are protected by child labor laws.

In the Philippines, union investigators found, children work up to 24 hours a day in peak season to sew lingerie for a German multinational to sell in Europe at a more than 1,000% markup. In Bangladesh, they reported, 40% of 700,000 garment workers are children, and most of their output is shipped to the United States.

In Pakistan, say activists who oppose child labor, youngsters who work in sporting-goods companies that export field hockey sticks, soccer balls and volleyballs to America may never have any free time themselves to play games. In Peshawar and Lahore, children perform the initial manufacturing work on surgical instruments but have poor access to health care themselves.

With its carpets, Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries, has scored a coup in overseas markets. Growing from a fledgling industry with a modest initial load of exports in 1964, Nepal's carpet-makers last year shipped 34.2 million square feet--enough carpets to cover nearly 600 football fields, goal post to goal post--and earned $204 million, or 60% of Nepal's export income.

Foreign consumers, especially Germans, who buy 80% of Nepal's carpets, have fallen in love with their warm, muted colors, thick woolen pile and abstract, non-Oriental motifs. From this boom, Meena and other child workers benefit little more than did the Lancashire millworkers of the Industrial Revolution or the antebellum slaves.

In interviews, the young Nepalese said they are paid just enough to buy food, pay rent (their landlord owns the carpet factory) and purchase cloth to make into clothes. For each square meter (about a square yard) of carpet that she ties, Meena is supposed to be paid the equivalent of $7.40. In two weeks, she is lucky to finish a square meter. Abroad, that much of her handiwork retails for $153 to $184, according to factory owner Nyami Tashi Lama.

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