Carpet Weaving Throws Lifeline to Refugees

Refugee families depend on the money their children earn from working Peshawar's looms to survive.

Carpet Weaving Throws Lifeline to Refugees

Refugee families depend on the money their children earn from working Peshawar's looms to survive.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Each day, Madad Khan, aged nine, and his brother Hakeem, 13, set out for a carpet factory in Peshawar to begin an eight-hour shift that earns them each 800 rupees - just over 13 US dollars - a month.

The carpet industry, a major source of income for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, illustrates the dilemma facing human rights activists who want to eradicate child labour: the money the youngsters make is the difference between their families getting by or plunging deeper into poverty.

The full extent of the problem is as yet unknown, with aid organisations denied access to the factories suspected of employing children as young as five. The health implications for these young workers are terrifying. Respiratory ailments develop after inhaling carpet fibres and muscular-skeletal problems can be caused by bending over a loom for long periods of time.

"We come to work on foot and work eight hours every day - and they do not give us food, "said Madad, who lives in the Board area of Peshawar. "We wish we could go to school, but we cannot because of money problems at home."

Their father, Khan Mohammad, is unemployed. "I am not able to work and we

have lots of financial woes - so I send my children to work," he said.

The factory, in the teeming Hayatabad area of Peshawar, was set up after Afghan refugees flooded out of their homeland. It has 25 looms turning out carpets for what has become a significant export industry. The two Khan boys are among 140 children in the factory.

"We hire children because they work well and their salaries are lower," said factory owner Haji Hashem. "We pay them from 500 to 1,500 rupees a month. We do not have any problems with the government because we pay our taxes."

The carpet industry depends on the small, agile fingers of the children.

Many are employed in formal factories like the Khan brothers. Others work at home and are paid for piecework.

Hand-made carpets are the leading export of the North West Frontier Province, with a production value of 130 million US dollars in the last fiscal year.

The refugee camps have provided few other employment opportunities. Completing the hundreds of thousands of knots used for every carpet is often the only work that is readily available.

A member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said businessmen have grown rich from child labour, which is thought to involve 2.3 million youngsters, aged from eight to 13. "Pakistani company directors do well from the kids, but provide them few facilities and benefits," she said.

Imran Ali Shah, an official in the Peshawar office of the UN children's agency UNICEF, said there are regulations on child labour but they are poorly enforced.

For refugee families, however, the carpet industry is a vital source of income. The story of Mari, who arrived from Kabul in 1996, shows how the trade can throw a lifeline to Afghans in desperate need of cash.

"When the Taleban took power they fired my brothers from their work. We had

serious financial problems so we came to Pakistan," said Mari, who is now 21. "After a while I became a trainee in a carpet-weaving company and eventually was able to work by myself and earn more money."

Mari's father is dead and her sister works teaching embroidery. The younger of her two brothers has two children who also work as carpet weavers. The family income totals 8,000 rupees per month.

"It's hard work and the income only just covers our expenses," Mari said. "Carpet-weaving is a useful skill but it is quite harmful to your health."

Many weavers are now packing up and heading back to Afghanistan, hoping the end of Taleban rule will usher in the first sustained era of peace in almost a quarter of a century. The centre of the industry itself is moving back to Kabul.

Pakistan had complained of the burden of hosting the estimated three million Afghan refugees - citing high unemployment and rising crime rates - but the country may suffer economically if it loses the valuable carpet trade.

Like most Afghans, Mari and her family plan to leave - although their prospects are not exactly promising. Afghanistan is devastated. And the government is urgently calling for promised foreign aid to start the reconstruction programmes that should go some way to addressing the high levels of unemployment.

"We will go to Afghanistan if there is peace and then we will decide whether to keep on weaving carpets," said Mari. Her family, however, is unlikely to have much choice.

Syed Jan Sabawoon and Ahmad Tariq attended an IWPR journalism course

in Peshawar.

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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