October 14: Morocco is one of the few countries in the African-Arab world to have tourism as a major industry. Tourists flock to Morocco for two things – its old-world charm and fine weather. And for its beautiful carpets.

Morocco produces about 7,50,000 square metres of carpet a year. That’s a lot of carpet. Their bargain prices attract tourists in droves. And, most of these carpets are produced by young children.

Brushed under the Carpet
Brushed under the Carpet [Illustration by Sudheer Nath]
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Five-year-old girls huddle over rows and rows of looms, weaving carpets for tourists in a medieval city called Fez. Some of them are so small that they have to stand on wooden boxes to work.

And no, they can’t ever let their attention stray. For a seamstress is around to rap knuckles with her stick, reports an article in the British newsmagazine, ‘The Economist’. And for working ten hours round the month like this, the little girls receive a pittance: a salary of $10 ( Rs 460 only ) each.

The scenario is repeated in carpet units across the country. And in various other units too. For the truth is out – whether as shoe shiners, delivery persons or child maids, children seem to be a major reason for the manner in which the economy is moving ahead. As is true of India, it seems that child-labour has become a part of the system in Morocco and does not raise eyebrows.

Morocco is located in Northern Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It is located between Algeria and Western Sahara. It is only 14 km. from Southern Spain.

Morocco remained for a long time under French rule. Its long struggle for independence from France bore fruit in 1956. But its people and, particularly, its children, are far from free. King Hassan, who ruled it for many years, did not believe in taking care of his subjects. His kingdom was the least educated in North Africa.

Of course, there have been some efforts to raise awareness about the exploitative nature of child labour. A United Nations Children’s Educational Fund or Unicef programme did try to see that carpets carried a certificate saying that they were not made by child workers. But the programme failed.

As many as 2.5 million children are out of school in Morrocco today and tethered to exploitative conditions at work. But the attitude of parents is far from encouraging. They do not see anything really wrong in it. What’s the point of an education, they ask, when the current system produces thousands of jobless graduates a year? Working children means there are fewer children loitering about in the streets. And more children acquiring skills.

What they do not see is that unlike a situation where a child automatically pricks up a craft from his or her parents and takes pride in creating something, these children are treated like slaves and paid a pittance. And there is no pride in their work, only a great sense of discomfort and fear of the employer’s anger.

For parents too poor to feed their children, the prospect of sending them to work is more attractive than not letting them do anything, or having them beg. Today, Morocco not only has an army if illiterate, but also homeless, children who live on the streets in cities, without the protective hand of parents over their heads. And many of them fall into unfortunate habits like drug-taking.

But every country realises sooner or later that the way the world is developing, countries with well educated populations are certain to do better. That is because the kind of professions and activities that are helping countries to forge ahead, require a reasonable standard of literacy and high skills, especially in times of the computer revolution.

So Morocco, too, will have to make a choice sooner or later. Former King Hussain has given way to his son who talks in a language that is familiar as that of today’s times: he talks of bringing his people forward. Only time will tell if he is serious about what he is saying.