Flanders and ILO work together to end child labour in stone industry

Summary

The second in our three-part series on Flanders’ involvement in ending child labour in India’s stone industry looks at the region’s ILO Trust Fund, which has provided seed money to expand a project that is getting Indian kids out of quarries and into schools

TruStone covenant signed

In 2015, Flemish daily De Standaard published articles about child labour in the natural stone industry in India. Special attention was paid to the paving stones used in an urban renewal project in Ghent.

The multi-year project, of which the city council was especially proud, saw squares and streets in the heart of the city centre repaved with beautiful hand-cut sandstone from the state of Rajasthan in northern India. Those paving stones and cobblestones, revealed De Standaard, were produced in appalling working conditions, including the use of child labour.

The paper was right, and Ghent politicians promised to “look much more closely at the situation in the future”. But what those working towards improvement in the sector realised then – as now – is that, while you can look more closely, you’ll find few alternatives.

Illegal mining and child labour in India is a massively complex and long-term practice that dogs every stone buyer in every country around the world. Fair-trade natural stone products from India have traditionally never existed. And the kind of sandstone preferred for the manufacture of cobblestones and paving stones – that can be quickly delivered in the volumes needed – only comes from India.

TruStone

Since then, the situation in one key group of villages in Rajasthan has changed. It took several years and constant monitoring by a consortium of representatives in the natural stone sector in Flanders and the UK, together with both Dutch and Indian non-profit organisations.

That project had already started when De Standaard published their articles. And that project, as well as De Standaard’s investigation, also spurred the government of Flanders into action.

Last week, the Dutch and Flemish governments signed a covenant called TruStone. It brings together the natural stone sector, various levels of governments, unions and NGOs to work towards the sustainable and responsible import of natural stone products.

In addition to this, the government of Flanders has provided funding to the International Labour Organization (ILO) to expand a project in Rajasthan that is getting kids out of the quarries and into schools.

“Rajasthan is one of the biggest states in India, and the production of natural stone in Rajasthan and in other parts of the world has very poor labour standards,” says Kris Dierckx of the General Representation of the Government of Flanders to the UN. “So those people who are producing the marvellous cobblestones of which we’re so proud in Flanders are working in terrible circumstances. Slavery is involved, child labour is involved.”

Flanders maintains a trust fund with the (ILO), and earmarks the funds for activities that are both a priority for the ILO and for Flanders. The situation in Rajasthan seemed like a perfect opportunity to put the ILO Trust Fund to good use.

The labour problems in India “shouldn’t exist anymore, of course,” notes Dierckx. “India has signed all of these ILO conventions. But there is a big problem with local governments in those countries.”

Vicious cycle


Local governments of villages in Rajasthan survive on the stone industry and so simply flout the regulations. “So on one hand,” says Dierckx, “we are supporting, with taxpayers’ money, the ILO, in which all of the member countries agree to basic regulations for decent labour conditions. And on the other hand, we see that these countries’ city councils, even in Flanders, continue to buy tainted natural stone.” Also with taxpayers’ money.

And while they do this unwittingly, it’s a vicious cycle that needs broken. “So we wanted to do something about that,” says Dierckx, “and we think that in terms of the supply side the ILO is the best organisation to partner up with.”

Flanders’ ILO fund is providing €340,000 in seed money for the project “Paving the way for a sustainable natural stone industry in India”. It will assist in expanding successful projects already on the ground in Rajasthan. Flemish natural stone importer Beltrami and its spin-off Stoneasy.com, for instance, are heavily engaged in such a project.

If they continue doing business the way they do, the demand side will sooner or later tell them that their stone isn’t wanted anymore

- Kris Dierckx, Flemish representative to the UN

The seed money will allow an ILO manager to get “people talking to each other, to get some kind of strategy going,” explains Dierckx. “And to have the expertise of the ILO providing proof that if you work towards more decent jobs in your sector, you can actually grow your share worldwide. The ILO already has proof that Rajasthan is not living up to its full potential. If we warn them that if they continue doing business the way they do, the demand side will sooner or later tell them that their stone isn’t wanted anymore.”

Which brings us to the demand side, and that’s where TruStone comes in. Signatories agree to work together to ensure that imported stone is as ethically sourced as possible.

“The lead has been taken by the sector itself in both Flanders and the Netherlands,” says Dierckx. “Of course these markets are small, even on a European scale. It’s just the two of us. But it could be the start of something much bigger.”

Ghent, by the way, was as good as its word. The next urban renewal project, in 2016, used stone from a Belgian quarry, at a 30% increase in cost.

But it’s not just cost stopping other cities or provinces from following this lead: Volumes of locally produced natural stone are limited. Ghent’s city councillor responsible for public works expressed concern about future projects. Between ILO and TruStone, Flanders hopes to be able to help solve natural stone’s ethical dilemma.

This is the second article in a three-part series on Flanders’ involvement in the natural stone industry. Part 1 looks at Flemish stone importer Bram Callewier’s pioneering efforts, while part 3 spotlights one NGO’s experience on the ground in India

Photo top, courtesy London Stone
Photo above, Flemish minister-president Geert Bourgeois (centre) was a co-signer of TruStone