Modern slavery: importation of Indian sandstone marred by rights abuses

Leonie KijewskiMonday 19 April 2021

Sandstones imported to the United States can, in some cases, likely be traced to a supply chain marred by serious human rights violations, according to a report published in August 2020.

The report, Tainted Stones: Bonded Labor and Child Labor in the India-U.S. Sandstone Supply Chain, was produced by the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights. It focuses on the importation of sandstones likely originating from Rajasthan in India.

The US is India’s fourth largest importer of sandstones, accounting for a value of $16.78m in the 2018-2019 reporting period. The report presents trade records showing that a number of US companies imported Indian sandstone in 2019.

The Rajasthan sandstone is used by construction companies and home decoration stores predominately for decorative elements of buildings and design.

Workers, particularly those mining at quarry sites, are subjected to bonded labor, child labor, low wages, and inhumane working conditions

Extract from Tainted Stones report

But the beauty of these sought-after stones stands in stark contrast with the human rights abuses their supply rests on.

‘Evidence-based research has shown serious human rights violations committed in the sandstone industry in Rajasthan. Workers, particularly those mining at quarry sites, are subjected to bonded labor, child labor, low wages, and inhumane working conditions’, the report found.

These abuses include insufficient safety protection at work, child labour and debt bondage. The latter leaves workers trapped in a circle of debt they owe to their employers.

According to the report, thousands of child workers can be found in Rajasthan’s quarries. Studies from 2009 and 2020 suggest that 375,000 child labourers are employed there.

Krishnendu Mukherjee, a barrister with Doughty Street Chambers in London, has carried out extensive work on the issue. He estimates that there are about 30,000 small mines in Rajasthan, with two and a half to three million people working in the industry in the region.

Mukherjee believes a host of issues perpetuate the human rights abuses.

Firstly, while India has laws that in theory protect workers from abuse, the rules are rarely implemented. ‘The reality is that they’re not functional’, says Mukherjee. Authorities, meanwhile, are eager to pass on responsibility by pointing to overlapping jurisdictions, he adds.

Most workers are undocumented, leaving them vulnerable without any official oversight from authorities, Mukherjee says. He estimates that ‘near enough to 100 per cent’ of the sandstone workers are unregistered.

But the greatest risk the workers face is that of their health: more than 50 per cent of mine workers in Rajasthan have been estimated to have contracted silicosis. According to the report, this incurable disease reduces a worker’s life expectancy to 40 years. Mukherjee says that, on average, a worker dies 11 months after contracting the disease.

Silicosis is, in turn, not only dangerous to a worker’s health, but also risks forcing them to take on more debt or even traps their families in debt bondage.

‘l contracted silicosis three years ago’, says one worker in Rajasthan’s Kota region, who is quoted in the report. ‘I was paid advanced money by the mine-owner several years ago. My biggest worry now is that the responsibility of repaying this debt is on my wife and children now. We might also lose our farmland if my children don’t work enough to repay the debt.’

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbates the risks, Mukherjee says. The novel coronavirus, which causes the disease Covid-19, mainly attacks the lungs. ‘If you have a pre-existing lung problem, you’re more likely to be worse affected by coronavirus’, explains Mukherjee.

He adds that, despite this, mine owners and managers are reluctant to invest in safety equipment, such as masks, that could mitigate the risks of workers contracting silicosis and Covid-19.

Rajasthan’s government could not be reached for comment.

Small fines for non-compliance mean that it is often cheaper to defy Indian labour laws than to abide by them, Mukherjee says – even if a case gets taken to court.

As Elise Groulx Diggs, Co-Chair of the IBA Business Human Rights Committee, explains, laws are only part of the myriad reasons why businesses should ensure human rights are respected.

Companies should, she says, engage in human rights due diligence when sourcing material for ethical and legal, but also for business, reasons.

Not doing so could pose huge financial risks, adds Groulx Diggs. For example, if a product is put on a governmental watch list, investors might exercise more caution before putting their money into a related project.

The US Customs and Border Protection agency, part of the country’s Department of Homeland Security, can also decide to order the withholding of products. ‘Then you pay for a huge shipping of stalls and they get stuck in the harbour and you’re not sure they’re going to be released’, says Groulx Diggs. ‘That’s a huge financial risk for a company.’

She adds that the financial risk is in addition to reputational risk, which consists, she says, of ‘the naming and shaming of a company that knowingly continues acting in spite of all this information coming out and doing nothing to mitigate or to prevent.’

Companies could also face legal liability based on different legal concerns, such as national laws and contractual clauses.

But unless import companies exercise pressure on their suppliers, things are not likely to change, Mukherjee says – and workers will continue to be abused in the industry.

The IBA Legal Policy & Research Unit's work on modern slavery, including a short film, 'Supply Unchained', can be found here.

Header pic: / OmMishra

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