First Published: 2003-06-07

Iranian carpet industry losing ground

Production of same old patterns, growing international competition cause Iran's share of world carpet trade to fall sharply.


Middle East Online

By Farhad Pouladi - TEHRAN

Iran's number-one non-oil export has hit a major crisis

There once was a time when a Persian carpet, woven with care by a family over a period of several months or even years, would be quickly plucked up on the international market at a price that comfortably supported an entire household.

But Ashraf Hosseini, a 55-year-old veteran among Iran's estimated two million carpet weavers, says that those days are gone.

"I can no longer see as clearly as I used to. I can't afford to see a doctor because I don't even earn the wage of a labourer," she complained from a damp basement in her tiny Tehran home, where she works with her wooden weaving loom.

Across the south of the capital, workers in a massive cottage industry recount the same story. With wages plummeting, a work that was once a comfortable mixture of artistic expression and good money has now become an unsustainable chore.

"Carpet weaving is like digging a tunnel with a teaspoon. And the money is low and it comes late. Sometimes you feel like a slave," explained 15-year-old Soqra, who earns 40,000 rials (five dollars) for a 10-hour day of weaving her youth into the loom.

Traders are quick to complain that the carpet industry - Iran's number-one non-oil export that nets around 530 million dollars a year for nearly 60 million square meters (645 million square feet) - has hit a major crisis.

Firstly, bazaaris here point to growing competition on the international market, where cheaper products - such as the mass-produced brightly coloured Indian dhurries - have eaten away at the market share of Iran's more intricate and costly offerings.

"Foreigners have different tastes to us, and we are almost totally unaware of what they want," said Ali Bidani, who at 37 has spent 20 years in the family carpet selling business based in Tehran's massive old bazaar.

"We are still producing the same old patterns, and on top of that we don't know how to market our carpets. Iran used to be number one, but now we are not even in the top three," he added, pointing to better marketed products from China, India and Pakistan.

Traders have also admitted that in order to tackle the competition, Iran's carpet industry has resorted to lowering quality: chemical dyes are replacing the natural blends of colours from flowers and fruits, polyester threads are squeezing out silk, and the old wooden loom is being cast aside for more efficient machines that fail to bring that vital human touch to the end product.

Iranian government intervention has also not been entirely successful.

"The government made the situation worse in two ways," Bidani explained. "Up until around one year ago, they kept changing the export tariffs."

An example, given by another trader, was when a Japanese buyer wanted to spend 100,000 dollars on carpets: "When I told him he had to pay 25,000 dollars in tax, he took his business to Pakistan, where the government even gives him a discount."

"Secondly," Bidani added, "we suffered because for a long time we didn't have a fixed exchange rate."

Previously, exporters were obliged to have their hard currency revenue placed in an official account, and they were paid in rials but at a "preferential export rate" that was in fact around one-third the street exchange rate.

The years of bureaucratic struggle for carpet exporters - which also saw some disastrous government interventions in decisions over what was sent abroad - appear to have ended, with officials acknowledging the trade is best left to the private sector with the government role limited to ensuring minimum standards in quality control and labour rights.

"Iran's share of the world carpet trade has fallen sharply from 55 to 28 percent," acknowledged Mohammad-Ali Karimi, who heads the commerce ministry-affiliated Iran Carpet Company, the body set up to provide a badly-needed focus point for the industry.

"We will work hard to ensure that the Iranian carpet once again reaches its deserved status, by checking the quality of material used and to export the kind of carpet that our international consumers are looking for," he said.

But many traders and weavers are wondering whether the latest initiative will be too little, too late.

"I wouldn't encourage people to come into this business," Ali Bidani said with a sigh. "I'm thinking of starting my own pizza joint."


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