Innocence Exploited

Exhibit on Child Labor Reveals Hidden Sorrows

Posted January 27, 2009 at 4:26pm

Hundreds of thousands of children throughout the world are forced to work in dire conditions for little pay, all for the sake of a beautifully crafted rug.

These children’s daily hardship will be on display next week in “Faces of Freedom,” a photo exhibit in the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda.

“You buy a rug in a luxury showroom and you just don’t think about the fact that it was produced in poverty and squalor. This is a way to make that real for people,” said Nina Smith,

executive director of RugMark Foundation USA, an organization that certifies rug manufacturers that don’t exploit children.

The exhibition, organized by RugMark, will be hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF in honor of the 10-year anniversary of the International Labor Organization’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. Harkin has served on the RugMark board for more than 10 years.

“Senator Harkin has always been the champion of the cause of most exploited children in the world,” founder Kailash Satyarthi wrote in an e-mail from Bangladesh.

“In early 1990s when myself and my Indian group have been struggling for eradication of child labour in carpet industry in South Asia, he strongly supported our efforts and raised this issue in US Senate,” Satyarthi wrote.

“In 1997 I visited RugMark in Nepal and I saw first hand the advantages that workers in the RugMark factories were given,” Harkin said via e-mail. “Most importantly, there were no children weaving carpets or working on the looms. They were in schools and they had access to healthcare and meals.”

The photos were taken over the course of 12 years by U. Roberto Romano, who has been shooting and filming images of child labor since 1995. They are broken into three collections: child labor; carpet manufacturing and inspection; and rescue, rehabilitation and education.

The child labor cluster comprises black and white photos and includes an image of a child working at a loom who is so skinny that his spine is clearly visible through his skin. In another photo, a grown man with a dark mustache supervises the children as they work.

“I think what’s special about his photos is that he has [taken] really critical global problems — it’s very serious stuff — but he does it in a way that is so beautiful that people are able to look at it, absorb it and feel moved,” Smith said.

She hopes the photos show lawmakers and others who view them that not all rugs are ethically made and that the choices consumers make could end up harming children.

“The theory was that when given the truth, a consumer will choose the ethical option,” she said. “It’s proving true. It takes time, but we certainly have evidence.”

A percentage of the funds earned by rugs that bear the RugMark certificate go to providing child laborers with schooling and vocational training. In addition to images of struggling children, the exhibit also features photographs of about 3,000 child workers whom RugMark has helped rehabilitate.

“When I first began documenting the lives of carpet children there were over 2 million weaving carpets,” Romano wrote in an e-mail. “Today, in large part due to Rugmark, there are less than 250,000.”

The photos from this collection show children participating in group meditation at the start of the school day. It also shows a young girl smiling as she reads from a book.

The Russell exhibit is the Washington, D.C., debut of the photos. The exhibition will tour North America this year with stops scheduled in New York, Minnesota and Ontario, Canada.

“It’s just a tool for reaching new audiences [with] our messages,” Smith said of the show. “We feel that audiences are much more moved to act when they are connected to the individuals who are affected by their purchase decisions.”