Flemish company leader in tackling child-labour issues in India


The first in our three-part series on Flanders’ involvement in ending child labour in India’s stone industry looks at Beltrami and Stoneasy, natural stone importers in Flanders. Run by the same family, they have taken the lead in ensuring an ethical supply chain

No Child Left Behind

About this time last year, Bram Callewier approached a stone quarry in Budhpura, in the Rajasthan state of northern India. From a distance he saw children of “about 12 to 14 years old” working outside the quarry.

He quickly took a few photographs. Then he walked closer until the children spied them. They immediately took off. “So they have a run-away policy,” says Callewier. “You see a white guy, you just run.”

This, he says, is progress. “Ten years ago, they wouldn’t have run away. They would have just stayed and continued working.”

Callewier (pictured above) grew up in the stone business. In the 1980s his father started Beltrami, which grew to be Belgium’s biggest and most respected wholesaler of natural stone products. Sandstone, limestone and granite are popular products in Belgium, used for cobblestones, paving stones and flooring.

But about 12 years ago, Beltrami – based in Harelbeke, West Flanders – began to feel the effects of a new practice in Belgium. Retailers were bypassing local wholesalers to make deals with foreign suppliers. So Callewier and his brother founded Stoneasy.com, a web-based importer of stone products.

Taking responsibility

“Under the brand Beltrami, it was impossible to sell the same material at lower prices,” explains Callewier. “Stoneasy sells the same products, but with a different business model. It was a strategic move to keep the customers in Belgium with us.”

And keeping the customers is important for more than the obvious reason. When retailers make deals with foreign suppliers, control of the supply chain gets messy. It’s already messy enough for professionals, which no one knows better than Callewier.

His father was one of the few in the business who not only took a look at his carbon footprint but travelled to India to see where his products were coming from. “We didn’t just have meetings with suppliers, we went to see the factories and the quarries,” says Callewier. “But we never really considered what was happening to these workers as our responsibility.”

Child labour is a very complicated issue where you’ve got poor families with no real future for their kids

- Stone importer Bram Callewier

A Dutch seminar in 2008 on sustainable stone supply changed their lives. “It was a completely new concept for us – taking responsibility for what’s happening in your supply chain,” said Callewier. A Dutch working group on ethical supply chains was responsible for the seminar. “They were real pioneers in conceptualising this whole problem.”

Callewier’s family businesses joined the working group and soon the pilot projects taking place on the ground in India. “And that’s how we became one of the pioneers in our sector in Belgium in this matter.”

The business is now one of the signatories of TruStone, a covenant launched by the Dutch and Flemish governments. Signed in Flanders last week and in the Netherlands today, TruStone 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.

Carved in stone

TruStone follows years of initiatives and builds on their experiences. In 2013, a project began in Budhpura, a group of several small villages in the Rajasthan state of India.

Most of the world’s sandstone comes from Budhpura, and this is where Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France does business. And no wonder: Sandstone is a perfect material for cobblestones and paving stones for public squares.

The No Child Left Behind initiative, funded in part by the Dutch department of foreign affairs, has no less a goal than to end child labour in India’s natural stone industry. It was founded by Dutch non-profit Arisa and Beltrami/Stoneasy. In six years, only one other stone importer has joined the effort, the UK’s London Stone.

As Callewier explains, the child labour situation is much more complex than western consumers realise. Not only is it a generations-long culture, it is a perfectly natural way of life for these villagers, who have no other employment options than the quarries that dot the area. School is seen as unimportant when your future is already carved out for you – in stone.

A woman needs to work but has nowhere to take her children. So she takes them with her

- Bram Callewier

“Child labour is never an issue of compliancy,” he says. “It’s not like there are factories where hundreds of children are being forced to cut stone. It’s a very complicated issue where you’ve got poor families with no real future for their kids. It’s really like a culture in that village. There’s nothing else to do.”

Looking at the situation through a western perspective is illogical, he continues. “My wife and I bring our children to school or to day care before we go to work. They are entertained, they are looked after, they get food, they get an education. In a village like Budhpura, there is absolutely nothing.”

He’s not exaggerating. There is no day care, and the schools are considered so poor, parents find it useless to send their children there. In Budhpura, the streets are full of stones; this industry is the very reason the villages even exist. Children often work outside their own homes, chiselling stones into the proper shapes. Or they accompany their mothers to the quarry.

A symptom

“It’s a very traditional society, with the mother solely responsible for the whole household,” Callewier continues. “But it’s impossible to survive on the husband’s salary, so she needs to go to work as well, but she has nowhere to take her children. So she takes them with her.”

If the kids are capable of chiselling stone into cobbles and can earn a few rupees a day doing it, why would they not? “In Europe,” continues Callewier, “kids have hobbies or do sport or, these days, sit behind their smartphones and computers. But those kids don’t have any of  these things.”

Obviously, neither the stone industry nor members of the community want the west to tell them what to do. But as the west becomes more aware of the child labour involved in the supply chain, the quarries are starting to realise that, economically, they might not have a choice but to make an effort where child labour is concerned.

It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, it’s more a matter of understanding and then coming up with sustainable solutions

- Bram Callewier

“Child labour is a symptom of deeper social problems that need to be addressed,” Callewier explains. “That’s why No Child Left Behind is focusing on issues like the lack of schooling, but also the parents. Often they are completely illiterate and have no idea why their children should go to school.”

The non-profit organisation Manjari has established itself in Budhpura as No Child Left Behind’s field worker. One of its first tasks was to train local members of the community in advocacy work in order to build trust among the quarry workers.

Over the last six years, Manjari – backed by the No Child Left Behind partners – have opened community centres, training programmes that teach sewing to girls and electrical work to boys, women’s services and, crucially, more schools. Previous to the project, there was one functioning school in Budhpura. Now there are seven.

Long-term goals

Aravali, a state-level development organisation in Rajasthan, is overseeing Manjari’s work in India. It lobbied to improve the situation for teachers in Budhpura, as teachers didn’t want to go there and, once there, certainly didn’t want to stay. This has been key in getting the teachers to show up to teach and the kids to show up to learn.

An independent report on No Child Left Behind’s Out of Work Programme was published in 2017. According to the report, in 2014 half of all children and young people in Budhpura up to age 18 were not enrolled in school, and about half of those – some 510 – were working in the local quarries. (That figure, however, is likely much higher, as children who are enrolled in school don’t actually attend.)

According to the same report, 59% of children who were working in 2014 were not working in 2017. The report is now two years old and, according to Aravali, the villages of Budhpura are now 90% child-labour free.

It’s a remarkable level of success. Callewier is optimistic, but cautiously so. “It’s about seeing what we can do with small interventions,” he says. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, it’s more a matter of understanding and then coming up with sustainable solutions. That’s why it’s so important that this project continue; it’s a long-term approach. It’s not like you get money for two years, and solve the problem. It’s impossible; you cannot change generations of thinking in two years.”

This is the first article in a three-part series on Flanders’ involvement in the natural stone industry. Part 2 focuses on Flanders’ ILO Trust Fund and the TruStone covenant, while part 3 spotlights one NGO’s experience on the ground in India

Photo top: Flemish natural stone importer Bram Callewier joined by NGO workers and children in Budhpura
© Courtesy London Stone

Photo above, from left: Bram Callewier, Flemish minister-president Geert Bourgeois, cabinet advisor Mathias Vanden Borre and Dutch stone importer Kees Eckhardt during the signing of TruStone
©Lisa Bradshaw