As we walk around, let’s look at where we’re going.
How many of us really look where we’re walking? I don’t mean the ‘careful you don’t stumble’ look down, the ‘daydreaming about other things whilst staring at your shoes moving’ look (I’m guilty of that). I mean the proper look at what you are walking on while you’re walking on it. Not many I expect, because pavements and walkways and pedestrian areas are, let’s face it, boring. They’re all so grey. Even the half interesting ones in town squares are just marked by parallel lines, covered by people and market stalls and weary shoppers sitting on benches. Nothing to see here, move along……..
What about that lovely new kitchen you’ve just had installed? All black granite worktops, shiny and smooth. Look at how it reflects the light with the tiny shimmering pieces embedded within. Fabulous!
But would it interest you to know that boring old paving slabs and shiny new worktops have the same story? A story involving long hours in dust and noise. Unprotected fingers, eyes and ears. Possibly slave or child labour, injuries, disease, even death?
The working conditions in both granite and sandstone quarries first came to national consciousness with media reports in 2007 about children found working in the stone industry, most often in chipping away at stones to make them small and even. Along with newspaper articles came reports from NGOs with deeper studies into labour practices in stone supply chains.
So why would, how could, child labour exist in quarries that supply the world with natural stone? While these, and other, issues may be found in many countries supplying natural stone, we will take India as an example to try to understand why these concerns exist.
In Rajasthan, in the north-west corner of India, the stone industry is an important one. Many quarries and stone processing factories exist, sometimes side by side, blasting, chipping and transporting slabs of sandstone. The ground is arid and the work is hot and dusty. Settlements grow up where the work is needed and whole families can get involved in the stone industry. Children take care of younger siblings while both parents work in the quarry. It is often the case that an older child gets more and more involved with the work by bringing lunch to working parents before eventually dropping out of any formal education (primary education is a legal requirement in India). They carry, chip and sort slabs of stone.
Workers of all ages often have no ear protection from the blasting and move large slabs of stone wearing only flip-flops. Cutting machine operators often have no eye protection, or gloves to protect their hands from the large, lethally sharp, cutting machinery.
In Rajasthan, the issues surrounding the stone industry are complex. The land is often privately leased and the owner then allows quarrying operations to start on the land. Settlements of workers and their families spring up quickly. However, because the land is privately leased, the government does not officially acknowledge that quarrying takes place or that these settlements exist. As these settlements are not recorded they cannot participate in government schemes, meaning they do not have access to benefits, electricity or any other amenities normally afforded to others.
Another big issue is the deteriorating health of the quarry workers. With each blast at the stone, with each chip, a cloud of tiny silica dust particles escape into the air and is inhaled by the workers. In time, this constant assault on the lungs creates a disease called silicosis. Silicosis (also known as miner’s phthisis, grinder’s asthma, and potter’s rot) is the resulting inflammation and scarring in the lungs, which in 75% of cases, is diagnosed incorrectly as tuberculosis. A formal diagnosis of silicosis means that the affected worker will receive compensation from the government, but a diagnosis of TB means that he will not. Many young women in these settlements find themselves raising children alone.
All is not lost though. Local NGOs are admirable in their daily pursuit of livelihood rights, dignity and safety. Helping with education and childcare and not only preparing children for formal education but also to have dreams and aspirations to lead them into the future.
As we sit at this end of the supply chain, what can we do? Although the issues described above need to be tackled holistically, we can play our part too. We can make good consumer choices. We can ask questions of the businesses we buy stone from. Where do they get their stone? Do they know their supply chain? What changes are they implementing? As part of the TFT Responsible Stone Programme, I’m privileged to be working with those businesses that care enough to do the most they can.
And as we walk around, let’s look at where we’re going.