A Journey of One Blazes a Trail to Freedom for Many

Photo © U. Roberto Romano

In 1980, when Kailash Satyarthi began rescuing children from bondage, consumers were far from his mind. He had his hands full convincing the outside world that modern-day child slavery existed. “When I brought this issue to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, nobody believed it.” Between 1981–1985, Kailash hammered away at the skeptics trying to make them realize that even the smallest children were being enslaved. It was not an easy job: “They said, ‘What nonsense are you talking about?’”

As chairman of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, Kailash persevered. He fought against child slavery one factory at a time. He raided these houses of horror and liberated children who had endured extreme violence. He saw the consequences of such violence with his own eyes. “If they tried to run away, they were hanged upside down on trees and beaten with stones,” he says, his voice full of emotion. “Their legs were broken so they couldn’t run away again. Many of them had been burned with cigarettes.”

Following one such raid, Kailash personally returned a kidnapped child to his home village. Elated but exhausted, he went to board a train home when he saw a sight that chilled him… dozens and dozens of children destined for the looms in the hands of middlemen. Kailash suddenly realized he might rescue 200 children, but 200 times that number that would soon replace them in what the English poet William Blake long ago called those “dark Satanic Mills.” “Something else had to be done,” says Satyarthi. “I was very angry. I thought, ‘Consumers have to be educated!’” This realization was for him a turning point, the beginning of a new way of thinking about the millions of children being exploited every day. He could not save these children one at a time. The situation called for a larger solution.

“At the time we launched the certification, nobody had heard the phrases, ‘corporate responsibility,’ or ‘corporate accountability.’ But we have given voice to many initiatives in the world. And some of the basic ingredients of RugMark and GoodWeave now are being used as great lessons by others.”

In addition to exposing the ugly truth behind beautiful rugs, Kailash wanted to establish a certification system that would incentivize manufacturers to stop exploiting children as well as guide consumer purchases. As he puts it, “If a banana can contain a small label guaranteeing it is organic, why not a full carpet? If monitoring is possible in a remote field in some remote country on a banana plantation, why can’t it be done in the carpet industry?”

The consumer campaign began in the 1980’s in Germany and Europe. Looking back, Satyarthi is amazed when he thinks of himself, barely 30 years old, lobbying much older people to follow his lead. Thus the RugMark label (now GoodWeave) was born. The first carpets with that certification were exported from India in 1995. In 2009, the new GoodWeave label was introduced worldwide.

As Kailash looks back on his long journey, the years fighting child labor, he remains optimistic that consumers and companies can play an important role in promoting ethical business practices. He believes the model can be used in other industries from chocolate to mining. “At the time we launched the certification, nobody had heard the phrases, ‘corporate responsibility,’ or ‘corporate accountability.’ But we have given voice to many initiatives in the world. And some of the basic ingredients of RugMark and GoodWeave now are being used as great lessons by others.” And, of course, because no task ever seems insurmountable to Kailash Satyarthi, it is with perfect conviction and no hesitation that he says of the campaign he launched, “In the end, we can change the world in this way.”


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Corporate Social Responsibility: Risk and Reward, a conversation with Doug Cahn

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Children's Stories

At the age of five, Manju was already working on the rug looms. While she has since been found and freed from illegal carpet work, some 250,000 children throughout South Asia still toil in obscurity. Through GoodWeave nearly 3,600 kids like Manju have been rescued, rehabilitated and educated, and thousands more deterred from entering the work force.

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