Kid Made, Adult Approved

New tipster FOBish informs us of yet another way India eats its young: Child Sari Weavers.

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It is estimated that there are around 10,000 children in the districts of Kanchipuram and Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu work in the silk industry.

There are over 100,000 looms set up in individual homes on which these famous silk saris are woven. Many of these saris cost several thousand rupees…

These children work every day of the week for up to 10 hours a day.

Savarnam, an owner of two looms rejected all accusations of exploitation. Instead he said that they were helping these poor people by giving them employment.

“We make hardly any profit. The cost of raw material is high. Added to that we face competition from cheap copies of Kanchipuram saris,” he argued.

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Riiight. Many, if not all these children are essentially bonded laborers working to repay a loan their parents were forced to take. Human Rights Watch reports:

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A 14 year-old boy who worked as a weaver’s assistant in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, told Human Rights Watch that he could not leave his loom owner because he was paying off a loan, which in two years he had only reduced from Rs. 2,500 (U.S. $52) to Rs. 475 (U.S. $9.90). “The owner pays [a small salary] but deducts for the advance [loan],” he said. “He deducts but won’t write off the whole advance. . . . We only make enough to eat.”
Karnataka, in the south, is India’s primary producer of silk thread. There, production still depends on bonded children. Most are under age 14 and are Dalit or Muslim. In 2001, the state government promulgated an ambitious plan to eliminate all child labor, but it was not in operation at the time of Human Rights Watch’s investigation one year later. [link]

A detailed examination of how bonded child labor works can be found here.So why saris?

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Child labour in silk weaving is associated with a certain type of sari, the korvai or `contrast’. In this intricate sari, the design and often the colour of the borders are different from those of the main body of the cloth. Three shuttles are needed: the weaver operates two, and the assistant the third. In this labour-intensive industry, children are often employed as assistants. A child is able to perform the tasks required as efficiently as an adult, can be paid much lower rates, and is likely to remain with the weaver for longer periods than a mature counterpart, who will acquire skills only to start his own business. On the demand side of the labour market, the reasons for a weaver to prefer a child rather than an adult assistant appear clear enough.

The supply-side has its own indefatigable logic as well:

  1. Poverty
  2. Family debt, often passed on to the next generation forcing young children into bonded labor.
  3. A general Indian attitude toward the continuance of the social order and caste system. Most child laborers are Dalit.
  4. Inaccessible education system.

Time and again, Kerala is cited as having the lowest incidence of child labor in India. Whether causation or not, the state’s high literacy rate is often pointed to as a reason.

In the best tradition of tone-deaf reporting imaginable, The Christian Science Moniter recently discussed the revival of South India’s Kanchipuram silk saris, once an old-fashioned dying art, now a revived, trendy industry:

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What they shopped for were Kanchipuram silk saris, considered the Versaces of southern India, because one piece can cost $1,000. Many will last a lifetime with good care, and all represent status…

Each sari is individually woven on a hand loom, so no two saris are exactly the same. “The Kanchipuram sari is a limited edition,” says S. Ramesh, managing partner of a silk store in Panagal Park. “Being hand-woven, some little imperfections will be there, but that adds charm to the sari.”

Other defining features of the brocade are that the silk yarn is dyed before weaving, threads used are 3- to 5-ply, and the contrasting colored border and body are interlinked by an intricate process called korvai. The motifs are woven in special “gold” threads made by taking one or two fine silk threads, winding extra-fine silver wire/thread around it, and then dipping the resulting filament in 24-karat gold…

Weaving is not a well-paid trade. The cheapest component of a handcrafted Kanchipuram silk sari is the labor. Weavers make about $14 for a sari that retails for $70 and takes nearly a week to make.[link]

Of course, if you’d like to buy a Kanchipuram silk sari, you don’t have to wonder if kids handled the looms. They’ve got pics to prove it.

Related links: 1, 2, 3

32 thoughts on “Kid Made, Adult Approved

  1. Oh god that’s awful.

    Riiight.

    Well, I dunno. The root of the problem appears to be this:

    The cheapest component of a handcrafted Kanchipuram silk sari is the labor. Weavers make about $14 for a sari that retails for $70 and takes nearly a week to make

    I mean, why the discrepancy, and why the cheap price for such a valuable object? I thought Saris used to be treated as an almost liquid asset. Its our fault for demanding cheap saris when

    Time to find some fair trade sari shop? Sigh. . .

  2. The story of Iqbal Masih, a bonded debt-slave who worked in Pakistan in the carpet industry and struggled for children’s rights, is another examination of how bonded children’s labor works. As Human Rights Watch notes, most attention to bonded children’s labor has been focussed on the carpet industry. While a Rugmark-style designation for saris made without child labor has some appeal, maybe addressing the circumstances that lead parents to seek out such loans is a better approach.

  3. ya guys need to get paid for doin this! how about that? one day bloggers will get paid….

    then you can quit your day jobs :) .

  4. Cicatrix,

    I don’t know about the child labor in sari-weaving, but I personally know children being employed in other textile establishments in TN. These typically start off as mom-and-pop factories where the parents rent a loom and start weaving in their own house. (As an aside, there are many towns in TN where the 24×7 sound of looms will be considered as unacceptable noise-pollution according to US standards) In these establishments their own children are usually employed. If they become successful, meaning they are able to rent another loom, they usually employ more children. They (and the working children’s parents) consider this is as children learning the craft instead of goofing around in their spare time. Many of them go to school too, which is usually half-a-day.

    Now, I don’t deny that it’s a hard life, but we have to keep things in perspective and consider the alternatives for these children – it’s likely they won’t become rocket scientists. It’s important to realize that the adult weavers are themselves poor, which in turn boils down to the impossibility of expanding from, say 2 to 100 looms, without encountering union-related labor problems and increasing costs due to corruption.

    By the way, bonded child labor is simply unacceptable the same way bonded labor is abhorrent.

    Couple of other points 1. Only poor children need to work, and most dalit and muslim children are poor. I don’t see any caste/religion angle to this problem.

    1. Kerala is a disingenuous example here, simply because they don’t have any textile industry. In other industries, for example, small hotels, I have seen that child labor is quite common there. I don’t know if child labor has been measured across industry segments and compared with other neighboring states.
  5. 1. Only poor children need to work, and most dalit and muslim children are poor. I don’t see any caste/religion angle to this problem

    Eswaran, don’t you think that nothing is being done (except a lot of foot-dragging) to release the bonded children, to build schools, to offer incentives to attend schools, to offer govt. loans so the poor don’t have to turn to sodomizing money lenders..because they are untouchable and/or of a different religion? It’n not an angle. I think it’s on of the reasons.

    2. Kerala is a disingenuous example here, simply because they don’t have any textile industry. In other industries, for example, small hotels, I have seen that child labor is quite common there. I don’t know if child labor has been measured across industry segments and compared with other neighboring states.

    If you followed the last link I added in the sentence re: Kerala you’ll find a comparison to Uttar Pradesh. The link in the word “supply-side” leads straight to a BBC article which has this to say:

    But many aid agencies tend to be critical of what they consider the government’s over-emphasis on the link between poverty and child labour.
    Activists say what is far more important than laws banning child labour, is a political commitment to primary education. India’s southern state of Kerala which boasts a near-100% literacy rate is cited as a prime example. Only one in 100 of the state’s children are recorded to be working, compared with a national average of nearly eight in 100.
  6. Saheli,

    yeah, the prices don’t make sense. The same Christian Science Monitor article, for example, talks about $1000 saris, and then about how they retail for $70. Huge gap since it’s apparently talking about the same kind of saris. That sari website offers these Korvai saris for $470, but the less elaborate saris are around $150.

    I get the feeling that an oily palmed middle-merchant is charging one hell of a markup somewhere along the way.

    My snark at the loom owner mentioned in the post was not because of his difficulties making profit, but because of his claim to be “helping poor people.” Kids come cheaper. If he wanted to help, he’d hire adults.

    These saris are held in high esteem in Sri Lanka, and most women wouldn’t dream of being married in anything else. I always thought they were the most beautiful saris ever made. And now I don’t know if I can ever wear one without my conscience giving me hell. Sigh.

  7. Knew about the child-labor in Sivasaki to make fireworks but did not know about the same in Kanchipuram’s silk trade.

    Let’s us what else is TN famous for?

  8. My understanding was that the $1000 Kancheepuram saris are expensive in part because of the gold or silver in the borders, not just the silk itself…

  9. On the subject of conscience, though, why should one’s conscience NOT prick one every time one uses a cell-phone? Recall the New Yorker article from a few years ago on how coltan is obtained… (The piece doesn’t seem to be available online, but running searches online pulls up some harrowing stuff)…

  10. And now I don’t know if I can ever wear one without my conscience giving me hell. Sigh.

    Well, that’s why we’ll just have to figure out a way to make sure we buy our saris from reputable sources. And pitch into a group like Asha in the mean time. Don’t give up hope is all I’m saying.

  11. , maybe addressing the circumstances that lead parents to seek out such loans is a better approach

    The Indian sari-buying populace is mature enough to be able to appreciate the Rugmark-esque branding that a no-children-were-deprived-of-their-childhood mark would bring to the trade. Not only would it legitimize the saree business, it would be a perfect market solution. It is well appreciated that the underlying causes are complex and the conversation on this blog has already led us into considerations of caste and religion in addition to abject poverty.

    Considering that the average wedding gown in the US costs upwards of $2000(right?), even $1500 (that is $500 more than a $1000 saree) is not too high a price to pay for the consumers concerned. Besides, the government does not really notice that there is a huge branding opportunity, much like Champagne, in the sense that silk saree from anywhere else, is not really a Kancheepuram.

    Saheli, a good way to ensure that kids are not being used to manufacture clothes is a simple surprise audit. That’s the way most regulations are enforced. Some of the extra $500 could go into incentives for Kancheepuram mill owners to encourage kids of weavers to go to school and get a primary education.

    Great post cicatrix…fashion AND concern.

  12. DDiA, accoring to the Fairchild Bridal Infobank, the average wedding dress is now $887. ($2000 was way too much, I knew.)

    Cicatrix, nice post.

  13. Citrix –> Thanx for posting this link.

    This child labor issue is not specific to Silk weaving industry, its more prevalent in many other small scale industries as well. In day to day life you will find lot of children who are from Poor/Dalit/orphans background work as mechanics in motorbike/car repair shops, in roadside petty shops, in departmental stores, work as cleaners in trucks, work as waiters (not like America, In India we dont have the concept of tipping) in hotels and many other industries, which get unnoticed.

    Sometime back in the 80′s when MGR was the Chief Minister in the state of Tamil Nadu, he introduced the mid-day meals scheme (idea was to make sure these kids get atleast one full meal in a day) in schools especially to attract these poor children to school (by that process get some political mileage, because in India no politician comes up with a scheme without looking into the vote bank). There was so much corruption in implementing this scheme. The people who managed, looted money and provided sub-standard foods to these children. The people who manage these scheme, have a strong affiliation to the political party in power. There is nobody to question these people..hence no accountability. These things happen in almost any Govt. sponsored schemes…I am looking for the day, when these kind of things will stop..I hope I am not the only one who is dreaming.

    BTW, I have finally found a blog, where I could understand the inner minds of the ABCD’s. Started reading only this weekend, and this blog has already shattered many of my views on ABCD’s in a positive way. I wish the founders of this blog a great success. In short ‘Sepia Mutiny’ Rocks. I wish I could have come across this site much earlier

  14. This is intersting, a little while ago this blog had a post on the death of the hand silk weaving industry in India. Its rather ironic that the post seemed to mourn the passing of a traditional art form.

    Not saying that non-traditional methods would necessarily solve child-labour, but just goes to show how much ‘the past’ and traditions are romantasized by those unaffected by them.

    Also as ‘modelminority’ pointed out child labour is a complex issue the alternatives might be worse. The best way to stamp it out would be to increase the earnings of the parents. In the meantime though its pretty depressing to think about what life must be like for those kids.

  15. See, this is why I don’t understand fashion. People spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars for labels. For an object that is, essentially, pretty cheap to produce. You $300 True Religion jeans are not going to last you any longer than your $50 version from, I don’t know, the Gap (ok, so I’m not much of a shopper). Alright, fine. You’re paying for the status and social cache of wearing this rare and iconic label. Okay, I’m not going to argue with that.

    But why not at least demand that that so -called rarity mean something. I mean, why is there not a market for boutique Varanasi and Kanchipuram saris that are certified to be made under decent working conditions by well-paid adults? How unlikely can that be? Raise your hand if you would shell bucks to get married in a sari like that.

  16. I think the fact that they are Dalit has a lot to do with every head-scratcher posed on this thread so far.

    The caste system in Sri Lanka is nowhere near as calcified as it is (from what I understand) in India, but untouchability still exists. My family is far from elite, and I never knew ‘what’ I was supposed to be, but I remember a relative marching me to a bathroom when I was a kid cause I’d touched the street-sweepers kid.

    Problems that I see: 1. Education isn’t understood to be the saving power that it really can be. Even if adult earn enough to move from acute poverty to scraping-by poverty…they seem to prefer a few pennies now to a diploma later from their children.

    1. They’re untouchables. So the goverment doesn’t really care (“where’s the outrage?!” sadly loses irony in this situation) and I don’t think fancy Bombay ladies would see the glamor/cache in wearing Dalit (TM) brand saris, y’nowwatimean? That sari-selling website was almost odd in how open it was about everything, and how it marketed itself. I wonder if they are reaching for a non-desi or NRI consumer… but maybe I’m out of touch and this sort of ‘traditional’ is now fashionable in India?

    2. Corruption. As Fobish points out in #15 about the school-meal program, I think setting up a “certification” or “branding” system, or something like that would mean weavers would end up having to buy certificates from the shitslice government official deputed to boost the industry. In short, have to pay for something that once came freely. And they certainly don’t seem to have the resources to form a collective to market themselves. (although, again, maybe that sari website IS such a venture?)

    Hmm..I don’t know, these are just some ideas. It’s hard to speculate from afar, but it seems wrong to remain deliberatly clueless too. I wonder if our readers in India (hey, I think of all four of you often! shout out!) would care to comment :)

    And many thanks DDiA and Rani :)

  17. Cicatrix, I see all your points, but it still seems like there must be a solution.

    think setting up a “certification” or “branding” system, or something like that would mean weavers would end up having to buy certificates from the shitslice government official deputed to boost the industry.

    Fair Trade labels aren’t given out by the government, they’re given out by a third party not-for-profit or somesuch. It’s true that in California and Oregon there are strict laws about what organic can mean, but the entity that actually gives out the organic label is more like a licensed accountant and less like a government agency. And the people really paying for that imprimatur are the far-end retailers.

    I don’t think fancy Bombay ladies would see the glamor/cache in wearing Dalit (TM) brand saris, y’nowwatimean?

    sure, not all of them, perhaps not even most of them. But some of them. And if you get the fanciest to bite first, fashion should wheel in a chunk of the others.

    I mean, otherwise, what good is fashion? If it can’t be used for fixing this, it really is totally useless.

  18. I think the fact that they are Dalit has a lot to do with every head-scratcher posed on this thread so far.

    Just to clear a point – I clicked through some of the links but I think there is a disconnect between your commentary on the silk sari production and the dalit supply chain. From what I know of Tamil Nadu, the so-called-dalits are hardly the meek submissive kind – (somebody correct me please if I’m wrong – I’m a little out of my depth) but the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a powerful TN party draws from their ranks – and their party platform is partly based on overcoming the class/caste barriers. So – my point was – that it isnt necessary a “dalit” oppression as it is a generally bad state of affairs – shades of animal farm.

  19. You need some super models and Bollywood actresses wearing sarees that are certified of not being from “child labor”. Next thing, eeveryone else will want to wear them.

    Child labor is all pervasive in India – chaiwallah at the stations, vendors at traffic lights, shoe polishers, utensil cleaners, toilet cleaners, garbage collectors, etc. Therefore, the solution is much more complex.

    I want some of the sepia mutiny guys to look at how Ireland turned itself around – from the sick man of Europe to one of the richest nation in the world in 20 years without oil or serependituous thing like that. We might learn some lessons from them.

    My blog has a story of a little girl who sells books at the Charminar, Hyderabad.

  20. The question was asked – is there anything like a fair trade org.

    My answer is – yes – there are several NGO’s out there that ensure a fair deal for artisans.

    We encountered some of these last year when traveling through Rajasthan – the guy I got to meet in Bikaner was a little slimy – but the SO talked with some lady in Udaipur and came away much impressed – I think they had a web site as well – I’ll dig it up if you’re interested – not kanchipuram shawls etc. – but horsehair paintings, rugs, wall coverings etc.

    Also, I believe the handloom emporium in New Delhi practices fair trade – but their prices are very high (maybe not for you USians tho’ :-)

  21. 2. They’re untouchables. So the goverment doesn’t really care

    The government is corrupt, but don’t paint everyone as being inhumane. There are a people in Congress trying to make things better and even though the country hasn’t had new legislation since the 80s, the issue is still being discussed. Sure, it’s UNESCO/Unicef that’s spearheading the dialogue (and action), but I think the government conceded earlier this year that they have no grip on the crisis and need help… I’m not trying to defend the government, just feeling as though it might be beneficial to not think of this as a totally hopeless cause.

    (I don’t believe this is isolated to Dalits, it’s poverty and the lower castes are involved also… Are you quoting from a source?)

  22. …actually gives out the organic label is more like a licensed accountant and less like a government agency.

    Exactly Saheli….note my past reference to an audit.

    Thanks Dhaavak for volunteering to look this up!

  23. “(I don’t believe this is isolated to Dalits, it’s poverty and the lower castes are involved also… Are you quoting from a source?)”

    It is more socio-economic. Definitely, the lower caste people are at the lowest economic strata and most exploitable. But I think that DMK-stlye policies have limited efficacy. The solution has to be more broad-based and cover a wide range of problems in child-labor. Have you seen the amount of children at harm’s way near construction sites in India? It is frightening.

    I do not think Jagjivan Ram’s grandsons are in vulnerable position.

  24. Dhhavak: The DMK does NOT draw from Dalit ranks for the most part; while the rhetoric of the Dravidian movements (i.e. historically) was particularly applicable to Dalits, over time the DMK morphed into a “mid-caste” party. There are other Dalit-oriented parties in Tamil Nadu, and depending on the situation one or another might be part of a coalition with the DMK at any given point. So I am not disagreeing with the wider point you make, but just to clarify…

    Focusing on the sari industry only misses the point; because of hereditary or caste-based occupational continuity, one might have (for e.g.) Muslims prevalent in the sari business, whether as child or adult laborers (e.g. the weavers in Banaras are typically Muslim, from the Ansari biradari/caste). But this does not signify that Muslims are disproportionately represented in child labor as a whole; i.e. in brick making, for instance, some other (and non-Muslim) caste or sub-group might be traditionally associated with that sort of work. I think it IS fair to say that various Dalit groups ARE grossly over-represented in such work, but I do disagree with the insinuation in the excerpt from the report cited in the post that Dalits and Muslims are on similar footing when it comes to child labor. That’s just not true.

  25. Here is a link on child labor in Tamil Nadu setup by the local govt. it mainly focuses on the street kids. It has some statistics on the child labor by districts and by industries. Actions taken by the Govt are also mentioned.

    There is also an experimental Project done by a group comprising of NGO’s, Trade Unions and Corporate network from UK in the garment industry in Tamil Nadu calling their work as Ethical Trading initiative.

    They did had an initial setback, but they havent lost hope yet.

    Between September 2003 and August 2004 efforts were made to put the plan into action, however this proved extremely challenging and time-consuming and little headway was made in delivering concrete actions. In addition we failed to recruit a local Coordinator suitable to both the ETI and the local partners. This situation gave the UK group cause to re-evaluate the project.

    In June 2005 a group of interested ETI members met to discuss what ETI should do to take forward work on this issue. It was agreed that for this work to be successful we will need, in the first instance, to get a consensus view among the tripartite membership on what we aim to achieve and how. It was therefore agreed that some preliminary work should be carried out by the membership to ensure that progress can be made. The following preliminary steps towards producing guidance for companies were agreed as:

    For more please read the link above