The High Price of Cashmere

Women cleaning goats’ wool for export complain of low wages and sickness.

The High Price of Cashmere

Women cleaning goats’ wool for export complain of low wages and sickness.

Women working in factories cleaning goats’ wool for the production of cashmere say their health is suffering and they are poorly paid.

They labour in factories all across the western Afghan province of Herat to process the wool in an early stage of what goes on to become one of the world’s most expensive cloths.

Sima, 12, would rather be studying but she extracts goat fuzz – the fine undercoat hair needed for cashmere – from the shorn wool from 7 am until 4 pm for about 140 afghani (2.90 US dollars) a day.

“My parents are dead and my brother has gone to Iran to work. I am the only breadwinner for my four siblings now,” she said. The family live in a ruin that they do not own and Sima suffers abdominal pains and asthma, but she cannot afford to go to the doctor.

Producing cashmere wool has long been a tradition in Afghanistan but the later stages of processing and production are done abroad. Cashmere is also produced in Iran, China, Mongolia and Russia.

The wool is produced in much of western Afghanistan. Herat is the country’s most important centre, also trading in the wool produced in other parts of the country, like Badghis, Maimana and sometimes Farah, Cheghcheran and Kandahar.

According to recent estimates, Afghanistan is exporting about 1,000 tonnes a year of cashmere, around seven per cent of world output.

Herat province has about 40 cashmere-cleaning factories, employing a total of around 2,000 women, many of whom complain of asthma, abdominal pains and backache.

Dr Ahmad Shah Barakzai, head of the tuberculosis section of Herat’s medical services, said most of the wool-cleaning workers suffer from the disease, which was common in the poorer areas where they live. The work is an opportunity for tuberculosis to spread but the authorities were not monitoring the situation, he said.

“I went to the fuzz-cleaning factories a while ago in order to build public awareness about tuberculosis. I found them cleaning fuzz in very infected places and I had to wear a mask,” he said.

Haji Habibollah Sarwari, the owner of one of the factories, accepts that the workers often complain of being ill, but he said it was for doctors and the public health department to deal with the problem. “Yes, our workers mostly complain about different problems such as asthma, backache, stomach ache, abdominal inflation, sore eyes,” he said.

One female worker, Gol Bibi, 45, coughs continuously, but has not been to the doctor, “I do not have money to pay for treatment or the doctor. My husband is old and cannot work anymore. My children are all very small. I have to do this very hard work.”

Sabero, a 50-year-old woman who has cleaned wool for more than ten years, said, “I began suffering from asthma recently. I have also been infected with a disease that causes abdominal inflation.”

Government and non-governmental organisations that work with women have so far not tackled the issue.

Wasi Sayidi, administration and finance director of the Women’s Social Services Organisation, said, “Because of an increase in the number of family issues and conflicts, our organisation has mainly focused on legal issues around women and we have not taken any steps in terms of solving the problem of fuzz cleaners ... We plan to address their problems in future, but we are busy helping women with legal issues.”

Zia Gol Yusofi, deputy director of labour and social affairs in Herat, says the authorities have sometimes checked fuzz-cleaning factories, but detailed monitoring was more difficult to organise.

Mohammad Chishti Mawdodi, the director of labour and social affairs for the province, said, “Most labourers are registered with us, but those who work in the wool-cleaning factories have not been registered yet.

“We have provided those women [labourers] a chance to work in the art, hand crafts, and beauty fields, so that they can leave that dangerous business.

“Since wool cleaners are not registered with us, we have not undertaken any action regarding them.”

Mohammad Shafi Firozi is an IWPR-trained reporter in Herat province.
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