International Organizations and the Question of Child Labor in the Iranian Carpet Industry

Sivan Balslev


This article examines child labor in the Iranian carpet industry, from around 1890 to 1930. During this period, child labor was shaped by a combination of local and global factors, including the involvement of international organizations of various kinds. Whereas European carpet firms, under the protection of British diplomats in Iran, employed and exploited Iranian children, British missionaries attempted to alleviate the physical harm that befell child laborers and treated them in missionary hospitals.

In the years following the First World War, the International Labour Organization approached the Iranian government with a direct request to curb the practice, and British diplomats supervised and reported on what they saw as an improvement in the working conditions of these children. The author argues that both child labor and the attempts to curb it were intrinsically linked to children’s bodies – their abilities, health, and protection. Children’s supple fingers were considered ideal for carpet knotting, and the damage this labor caused young bodies was central to the discourse on improving their labor conditions.

This article uses the lens of childhood history to shed light on some of the intricacies of the attempts to regulate child labor in Iran and to analyze Western observers’ views on this issue.