The Child Carpet Weavers of Pakistan

by AFP/Mohammed Rizwan, Jan 16, 2006 | Destinations: Pakistan / Islamabad

LAHORE, Pakistan, Jan 16, 2006 - After years of backbreaking, finger-stiffening toil in Pakistan's luxury carpet business, Hafeezan Bibi and her three children have been given new hope by an award-winning new loom.

"Our earnings have more than doubled. We used to earn 1,000 rupees (17 dollars) a month on the old loom but now I am earning 2,500 rupees," says Bibi, of Jhabbran, a village 60 kilometres (37 miles) outside Lahore. "I have taken my two daughters and my son from the business and have sent them to school. I do less work but we are earning enough now," adds Bibi, who looks older than her 36 years. "On top of it all I used to be a chronic patient of joint pain and backache. It's getting better now."

The dramatic change in Bibi's life is due the special "ergonomic loom" invented by Pakistani occupational health expert Saeed Awan, who wanted to change the grim conditions in the country's rug industry. Because it can be used while sitting instead of squatting, unlike traditional looms, the machine improves the working conditions and productivity of adult weavers, and therefore reduces the need for child labour.

More than four million children work in the rug industry in Pakistan, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) says, churning out the luxury items that later adorn western homes. They currently work on an estimated 300,000 manual carpet looms, many of them in the central province of Punjab, centred on Lahore.

Awan, 42, the director of the Centre for Improvement of Working Conditions and Environment in Lahore, came up with the idea while carrying out a survey for the ILO and hopes it will spread across the industry. Late last year he won the 250,000-dollar Tech Museum Award given by the Santa Clara University in California.

"I was working with an ILO project on the eradication of child labour when it occurred to me that children have to work in this cottage industry because the working age of the adult worker is very short," he explains. "The design of the loom makes a worker squat on the floor for hours which results in acute joint pains forcing their early retirement," he says.

"Then there was the problem of wool dust which remained suspended for hours in the cottage homes affecting the lungs and respiratory health of workers. So, I along with designers decided to modify the design of the loom so it could be used sitting on a chair or bench and which does not produce wool dust.

"Finally in 2003, after working on the project for two years, we came up with the design which not only addressed these two problems but is also chainless and easier to maintain."

Awan's work has already won the admiration of Berkeley and Stanford universities in the United States and has drawn the attention of a US senator who campaigns against child labour worldwide.

"We are running the pilot projects in six districts of Punjab and so far 24 per cent children have directly benefited from this new invention," says ILO Project Manager Taseer Alizai. "The number of children who would be able to go to school from the carpet cottages in the next two years should be around 120,000 provided the use of new machine spreads at the current rate," says Alizai.

In 2004, Pakistan produced 4.4 million-square-metres of hand-woven carpet earning 284 million dollars and if the machine is widely used as expected the figure would touch 300 million dollars next year, says Alizai. "The real winners of the award are the millions of carpet weavers. I hope that this loom will be adopted throughout the country and reduce child labour", says Awan.

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