Last updated 16/02/2015
How many of the paving slabs for sale in Britain were cut by tiny hands? Josie Wexler investigates
© India Committee of the Netherlands
The Story of Indian Sandstone
Indian sandstone looks very similar to York stone, the traditional yellow building stone of the North of England. Over the last few decades many of our quarries have been coughing up their last pieces of stone, and Indian paving slabs have poured into the market as a cheap alternative.
But as the market has grown, so have concerns about the stone’s origins. Working conditions in the stone quarries of Rajasthan were first brought to Western attention in 2005 by a Dutch campaigning organisation called India Committee of the Netherlands, who published two shocking reports. In particular, they reported on a million children who are working in India’s stone quarries, making up about a fifth of all workers, some of them as young as six.
Why are the children working?
There are many reasons for the prevalence of child labour in India’s quarries. Some children are working simply because their parent’s wages are too low to support them. Some are there because of a lack of schooling or childcare facilities.But the worst part of the story is that some are reported to be bonded labourers.
Workers can become bound to employers when they accept loans from them to supplement their meagre wages. They can then end up working endlessly to pay off the debt, and the debt is sometimes passed down the generations, meaning that children are born into a situation of effective slavery. Debt servitude of this kind has existed in Rajasthan for centuries. It was legally outlawed in the 1970s, but everyone seems to agree that it is still prevalent.
One of the complexities of the situation in India is that many of the child labourers are invisible. The official employees are the parents; the children just come along to help, and the contractors say that they don’t employ children. There have been reports of children being told to run away and hide when inspectors turn up. This means that unless they run all of their own quarries, which they invariably don’t, a company has to audit quite thoroughly to be sure that the stone they import hasn’t been quarried by children.Some argue that they shouldn’t be doing so at all, that if a child’s family can’t support them, it would be crueller to prevent them from working.
Tackling child labour certainly has to involve tackling its root causes, including poverty.But its apologists ignore the fact that child labour tends to be a vicious circle, perpetrating the very conditions that give rise to it. Not only does it stunt children’s education, but it often undermines workers’ rights in general as it floods the market with workers who are particularly cheap, and particularly easy to push around.
In the years after the Dutch reports were published, their findings were quite widely publicised in the UK media, partly due to the efforts of Chris Harrup, the Marketing Director at the Huddersfield-based paving company, Marshalls. Harrup has been campaigning on the issue since 2007, and many of the media articles describe his personal quest to improve the industry. He says that after he read the Dutch NGO report he decided to travel to India to see for himself, and the decisive moment was when he met two girls working in a stonequarry.
They said that they were eight and eleven; the same ages as Harrup’s own children. Marshalls subsequently started producing a line of stone it calls ‘Fairstone’. It employs a full-time field auditor and full-time capacity builder in India, who are charged with checking on the conditions in the quarries from which Marshalls sources its stone. It has also been donating to a local charity which supplies medical care and education in the region, and to UNICEF to research long-term ways of tackling child labour. Marshalls say that they have independent audits conducted of the whole of the supply chain to police their work.
The Ethical Trade Initiative
Marshalls is not the only stone company making ethical claims, although it is doing better than many of the others at backing them up. Some companies describe their paving slabs as “ethically sourced” without providing any details at all, which doesn’t inspire much confidence. Unfortunately, as there is no really rigorous, independent ethical scheme in existence, it is quite hard to know what companies are doing. Some point to their membership of the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) as evidence.
Out of about 40 importers of Indian stone, nine, including Marshalls, are members of the ETI. Being a member means signing up to support its ‘Base Code’, a set of labour standards, which include the absence of child labour. The members of the ETI meet to discuss how to get their suppliers to implement the code. They submit reports, which are then audited, describing how they plan to do it. That is certainly better than nothing, and a 2005 review of the ETI (not of the stone sector) concluded that it did make a difference. But by its own admission, the ETI doesn’t check up on what is actually going on in the field.
It has publicly reprimanded companies for claiming that membership of the scheme is a guarantee that their products have been ethically sourced. And India Committee of the Netherlands, the organisation that originally drew Western attention to the issue, told us:“Companies through these corporate social responsibility initiatives [like the ETI Stone Group] are still mainly focusing on the first tiers of their supply chains, often processing factories, and not natural stone quarries...Thus the impact of the initiatives on the labour conditions of sandstone quarry workers is still very limited.”
So where does this leave someone who wants to buy ethical paving slabs, and notfeel that they are being led, as it were, up the garden path?
Some may want to avoid Indian stone altogether. Despite all of the problems, the industry does provide income to desperately poor people who might otherwise lack it. But of course, that has to be set against the environmental cost of shipping great chunks of rock halfway across the world. Sandstone imported from India is responsible for five times the carbon emissions of sandstone quarried here. (Although it’s worth noting that that still only puts it on a par with British slate, because the actual quarrying of sandstone takes so little energy. In and of itself, sandstone is a low-carbon material).
One option that is certainly greener is buying reclaimed paving slabs. They tend to be more expensive than Indian slabs, but are cheaper than those made from newly quarried York stone. A good place to look for adverts is SalvoWEB, a marketplace for dealers in reclaimed materials.
If you do buy Indian sandstone, it’s worth supporting the companies who are making the most serious attempts to improve the industry. Besides Marshalls, the other companies that are part of the ETI Stone Group are Beltrami, Brett, CED, DNS Stones, Hardscape, London Stone, Natural Paving and Pavestone. But as detailed, on its own, ETI membership is not an independently verified guarantee that the stone will have been well sourced.
It’s also worth taking the opportunity to talk to the companies about the issues.To take action, companies will need to believe that people will be prepared to pay more for their paving – Marshalls claim that their Fairstone standards add about 20% onto the total cost of the paving slabs. But there is good reason to believe that this sector is one which will contain some wriggle room, because the cost of the actual slabs is usually only a small proportion of the cost of doing a paving project anyway. And that means that there are surely a reasonable number of people who will be prepared to pay a bit more for stone that comes with an ethical guarantee.
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1 India Committee of the Netherlands (2006) From Quarry to Graveyard, Corporate social responsibility in the natural stone sector
2 Gunasekaran (2014) Debt Bondage in the Sandstone Quarries of Rajasthan, Economic and Political Weekly Vol- XLIX No. 30, July 26, 2014
3 Cramer et al (2014) Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda
4 India Committee of the Netherlands, (2006) From Quarry to Graveyard, Corporate social responsibility in the natural stone sector
6 Personal Communication 23/01/2015
7 We can’t turn a blind eye: Child labour, 09 April 2010 www.building.co.uk accessed 21/01/2015
10 Goodsir and Naeeda Crishna (2010) Embodied Carbon in Natural Building Stone in Scotland, Presentation at Historic Scotland Energy Efficiency and Sustainability in Traditional Buildings Conference, 24th March 2010