Stone quarrying is a tough business and the Indian sandstone industry, which supplies many of our patios and pavements, goes largely unregulated. Many UK stone importing companies are taking increasing interest in sourcing ethically, and the stone sector is now ETI's fastest growing membership group.
Earlier this year ETI's Martin Cooke travelled to Rajasthan in India to get first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced by the people working in stone quarrying and processing.
There he spent time with Marshalls and several suppliers to other ETI stone sector members, visiting quarries and processing yards and talking to workers. It helped him build up a rich picture of some of the key challenges for workers and to find out about the positive changes that some of our members are making.
I talked to Martin about what he found.
Tell me about the nature of the stone industry in India.
Well the first thing to say, as with many of the supply chains we work with, is that it's very complex! For a start, it's an incredibly dispersed industry: in the region we visited there are more than 400 licensed sandstone quarries - many of them several times larger than a football stadium - as well as a substantial number of unlicensed quarries. There's also very little transparency as it's primarily a cash-based industry.
The industry also primarily supplies the domestic Indian market; about 85% of what's quarried is used locally. That creates a challenge for UK companies seeking to influence standards in the industry.
The stone industry in India is also very seasonal; when the monsoon rains come all the quarries flood and it becomes impossible to dig any stone out, so work ceases. The vast majority of quarry workers are migrants. They come to the region for the dry season, then head back to their villages when the rains begin.
What kind of problems do migrant workers face?
The stone industry in Rajasthan provides work and livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions. Unlike in some other countries, where individuals travel to find work, whole families migrate to the quarry areas, often setting up little shacks around the quarries themselves. The fact that both parents work creates a problem: what are you going to do with the children? Although I personally didn't see any children working in the quarries, it's still a pretty hazardous place for kids to be, working or not. Often the mums don't have any choice but to take their kids to work with them.
The other big issue for migrant workers is that in India, social benefits such as access to free education and healthcare are usually only available in your home state. As most of the migrant workers come from other states, they are effectively barred from accessing these facilities.
Marshalls is working with a local NGO, Hadoti Hast Shilp Sansthan (HHSS), to provide schooling for the children of quarry workers. Not only does this give the children an education, but their parents know they're safe and getting a midday meal.
What were the main issues for workers you learned about?
The first thing that struck me was the complete lack of any proper sanitation, health or hygiene facilities in the quarry areas, as they're so remote.
What you don't get from just looking at pictures or reading reports is how hot and noisy it is, and how much dust gets everywhere
Added to that was a huge impression of how exhausting working in quarries must be, even when quarry owners are trying to do the right thing by their workers. It's a really hostile physical environment out there and what you don't get from just looking at pictures or reading reports is how hot and noisy it is, and how much dust gets everywhere - on peoples clothes, their skin, hair, up their noses and so on.
With temperatures rising to over 40° in the shade in the summer it's hardly surprising that you see people wandering around in flip flops and very light clothing - imagine trying to work in that heat and then being told you have to wear heavy boots, plastic goggles and a mask over your nose and mouth!
What kind of health issues did you become aware of?
Companies can't just dish out protective equipment and expect that to solve the problem
We visited one of the health clinics sponsored by Marshalls. As well as injuries and accidents, the doctors there told me that the greatest health problems are silicosis, which people contract by breathing in silica dust, and tuberculosis, which is probably more connected to the unsanitary conditions and poverty than the stone industry itself. I was also told that people get a lot of fungal skin infections too, presumably as a result of working in hot conditions without proper washing facilities.
The challenge is that companies can't just dish out personal protective equipment and expect that to solve the problem. Workers need educating about health hazards for a start. Some companies are investing in different machinery and processes that can help reduce noise and health and safety risks, but this is expensive and many local companies are operating on very tight margins in an industry where the domestic market is strong and doesn't think in the same way about health and safety.
Did you see any instances of discrimination?
Aside from the fact that migrant workers are disadvantaged in terms of access to social benefits, I heard that they don't get opportunities to work up to managerial positions in the industry which are generally only available to people from the local community and higher caste.
There was a clear a division of labour according to gender. The men do skilled jobs and are actually quite well paid. In general, women do unskilled jobs, such as tidying up rubble or making cold chisels in little roadside forges. It wasn't clear though whether this amounts to discrimination or simply results from the fact that the work women do, although arduous, requires less physical strength.
I talked to one lady, Sunita, whose little boy, Lokesh, was attending one of the street schools, arranged by HHSS. Sunita told us that she works with three or four other women, clearing about 40 tonnes a day of waste stone rubble between them by hand and on their heads. They each make about 120 Rupees a day, about £1.65. This is less than the minimum wage of 135 Rupees and certainly less than a living wage
Sunita comes up each year with her family from the next state, Madhya Pradesh to work in the quarries. She told us that she was very pleased that Lokesh and her sister, Gurdi (8 years old), could go to the street school. She doesn't go to school herself.
What's the solution for these issues?
Without UK companies buying stone from Rajasthan, thousands of workers would lose their jobs and the opportunity to raise standards would be lost
Well one thing you have to remember is that millions of workers depend directly or indirectly on the Indian stone industry. Without UK companies buying stone from Rajasthan, thousands of workers would lose their jobs and the opportunity to help raise standards would be lost.
Many of our member companies are acutely aware of these problems and are starting to take action to tackle the underlying causes of the problems we saw.
But individual companies can't make much headway on their own. What's needed is a collective effort. We also have to start looking at this from a development perspective, rather than from a compliance point of view. The basic problems are about rural poverty, lack of basic education, sanitation and health care.
We are putting together a sandstone programme in Rajasthan, working with all of our member companies sourcing from there. We're also collaborating with sister organisations in Europe on a combined approach.
The second half of this two-part blog looks in more detail at ETI's plans for collaborative work to tackle the underlying causes of workers' rights abuses in the region.