While Pakistan is classified globally as a low-income country, in at least one industry, the wages for unskilled labourers have risen too high for the industry to compete effectively: the handmade carpets industry.
Workers in the industry who spoke to The Express Tribune say they get between Rs150 and Rs200 per day by the owners of carpet export houses. Yet the same worker can make Rs500 a day by working jobs in the construction industry or several other industries that require unskilled labour, effectively rendering the carpet industry unviable for most adult male workers in the Faisalabad region, one of largest concentrations of the handmade carpet industry in the country.
As a result, most families let their children and some women of their households work in the carpet industry, resulting in the unfortunate situation of several children, some even below the age of 10, working on carpet looms throughout much of suburban and rural Faisalabad.
While Pakistan’s labour laws prohibit the employment of minors, labour department officials from the government of Punjab say that there are limits to what actions they can take against the employment of children.
Yaseen Sarfraz a senior official at the Punjab labour department told The Express Tribune that the government can only prepare a case against the owner of a carpet mill and forward it to the courts. They are not empowered under current laws to rescue bonded or child labours or rehabilitate them. Yet even as he admitted the limitations of the laws, Sarfaraz said there was no need to amend them.
For their part, adult carpet-makers continue to leave the industry in droves. Mushtaq Ali, a former carpet-maker, said that he worked in the carpet industry for several years, but now finds that he can earn more than twice as much in construction. Shahid Hameed, another former carpet-maker, estimated that about half of the labourers in his field have left the industry for other jobs.
The owners of Faisalabad carpet stores, most of which also double as export houses, say that they compete in a global market and cannot raise their prices.
“Production is rising sharply in India, China and Iran and there is only one major export market: the United States,” said Rana Sanaullah, the proprietor of Rana Carpets in Faisalabad, when asked how his firm justified its low wages.
“Export figures are gradually going down,” claims Mukhtar Ahmed, the Faisalabad-based owner of Ahmed Carpet.
According to data from the International Trade Centre, a Geneva-based group that keeps track of global trade, Pakistan exported $127 million worth of carpets in 2010. It is not clear what percentage of those carpets were handmade, but the ITC also reports that Pakistan’s exports have been almost consistently declining since 2005, when exports reached $277 million, an average decline of 14.4% per year.
One carpet takes between eight months to a year to make, say the owners of carpet stores, meaning that every worker has to be paid for several months before one product is finished.
Despite its many hardships, the handmade carpet industry is unique in at least one respect: it has not been affected at all by the chronic energy crisis in the country, since the work being done is mostly on handlooms that do not require any electricity.
Yet the industry still complains of high interest rates and demands that the government construct high protectionist barriers against the export of raw wool, somewhat ironic for an industry that makes the bulk of its revenues by exporting its products to the United States.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 31st, 2011.