Katie Kenrick of TFT’s Responsible Stone Programme explains how child labour is a big issue in stone supply chains, but it’s far from the only one.
Child labour is without a doubt the highest profile issue in natural stone. It is particularly prevalent in the cobbles industry – where off-cuts of stone are hand split into small stones. Years of campaigning have increased awareness. Some progressive companies are now collaborating in an effort to try to find solutions to this endemic problem.
Which issue to focus on?
I wonder though if the relative success of the cobbles campaign to raise awareness, has not inadvertently been at the expense of the other huge social challenges this industry faces? Let’s be clear, the issue of child labour is both very real and very serious. The sight of small children crouching down by the roadside chipping off-cuts into small pieces of stone is both poignant and prolific in certain areas.
We welcome and are supporting appropriate efforts to work with communities to find solutions, to help children back into education and to make families less reliant on the income children bring. But there are other, very real and very serious issues to tackle too – issues that have enormous impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods.
The risk in focusing on one specific issue – and one which only affects a small proportion of natural stone imported into Europe – is that companies who aren’t importing cobbles aren’t held accountable for the other challenges. Health and safety for one. In the West we too often dismiss health and safety, rolling our eyes and mocking the sometimes overindulgent focus it has in our society. Not so in stone – there is nothing overindulgent about seeking to prevent injuries inflicted by workers using jackhammers whilst wearing flip flops; by lifting huge weights, and by silicosis – caused inhaling dust created when processing the stone.
Issues not limited to safety
These injuries and the many, many others have real impacts on these people’s lives and on their families and their ability to have a productive working life. Health and safety is not the only challenge though; like many industries in the countries involved, working hours and pay can be far from legal minimums.
In some areas advance and loans systems (frequently used to meet the cost of healthcare) effectively tie workers to their place of work. The use of casual labour is frequent and conditions for these workers are often far below those of their permanent counterparts.
Solutions not standards
Sometimes – not often – but sometimes – the processing factories are OK, but dig a little deeper into your supply chains, travel a little further off the beaten track and what you find is far more concerning. In TFT we believe that it is not enough to impose standards, pass the responsibility down the supply chain and declare that it is up to the suppliers to meet the legal requirements.
Or to point to an audit if something goes wrong and blame the audit company. If we are going to have an impact we can’t just identify the problems; we have to get transparency of the complete supply chain, understand why the issues are happening, and help find the solutions that will bring transformation. We are duty bound to ask the questions, to get the transparency and to help build better conditions together, in partnership with suppliers. Because it is people’s lives that are being lost if we don’t.