How youngster labour in India makes the paving stones beneath our ft

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How youngster labour in India makes the paving stones beneath our ft

Sonu has one clear instruction from his boss: while you see an outsider, run. Within the two years since he began working full time, he has needed to run solely twice. Sonu is eight years previous. His mom, Anita, stated that just about each time an outsider involves their village of Budhpura, within the Indian state of Rajasthan, she receives a cellphone name telling her to not carry Sonu to work. “Solely adults go to work on these days,” stated the 40-year-old, cradling her youngest youngster, who’s three.

Sonu and his mom work eight hours a day, often six days per week, making small paving stones, a lot of that are exported to the UK, North America and Europe. Sonu started working after his father died of the lung illness silicosis in 2021. “First, he made 5 stones, then 10, after which he give up college to work full-time,” his mom stated. The pair sit on a avenue near their residence, amid heaps of sandstone rubble, chiselling rocks into tough cubes of rugged stone. Sonu is paid one rupee – lower than a penny – for every cobblestone he produces. These stones have a retail worth of about £80 a sq. metre within the UK.

Twenty years of chipping away with hammer and chisel, tossing and turning the hefty rocks, has left Anita with fixed again ache, and numerous accidents to her palms and ft. She has tuberculosis, which can have been attributable to inhaling mud. She will’t maintain a sizzling chapati as a result of her palms are uncooked and peeling from greedy the stones and dealing with instruments for hours at a stretch. Her revenue is so small that she has to resolve between paying for a physician or shopping for garments and footwear for her 5 youngsters. After we met final yr, within the sizzling month of August, Sonu was strolling barefoot on the stony, unpaved roads of the village.

India is likely one of the largest producers of pure stone, together with granite, marble, sandstone and slate. Rajasthan, a mineral-rich state within the north-west, attracts mining firms from all around the nation. Earlier than a enterprise can start extracting, it should purchase a mine lease from the state authorities. Rajasthan has issued greater than 33,000 mine leases, greater than some other state in India – most of them for sandstone mines and quarries – however reviews from environmental organisations recommend there are 1000’s of different quarries working illegally, and not using a licence. This implies a major proportion of the Rajasthan mining trade is unregulated.

Sandstone, certainly one of Rajasthan’s prime exports, is a colored sedimentary rock, primarily composed of quartz sand, which is utilized in development and paving. In 2020, Rajasthan produced about 27m tonnes. And whereas a big a part of it’s for home use, hard-wearing sandstone paving is widespread in Europe and North America for roads that see quite a lot of snowfall or heavy autos. The most important client of Indian sandstone, although, is the UK. The stone’s mixture of patterns and colors – crimson, tan, brown, gray or white – give a gorgeous, rustic look to backyard paths and patios. Though sandstone is produced in Scotland and Cumbria, Indian sandstone is cheaper: in 2021-2022, the UK imported greater than 350,000 tonnes of it, price about £65m.

Studies recommend there are round 2.5 million individuals working in Rajasthan’s mining trade, nearly all of them migrants from marginalised communities elsewhere in India. Some journey to Rajasthan independently, in search of work, however a lot of them have been recruited from different Indian states by native brokers working for or with mining companies. “The brokers inform [the workers] you’ll work on contracts, make some huge cash,” stated Shankar Singh, a social activist and co-founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, an organisation supporting agricultural staff and labourers in Rajasthan. Singh claimed the migrant staff have little or no information of the work they’re being employed for, or the dangers concerned. “If they inform them how harmful the job is, why would anybody take it?” One 2005 report detailed how brokers invited migrant staff to Rajasthan on a free journey to Hindu spiritual websites; after they couldn’t pay the journey bills, they have been pressured to work within the quarries.

A mom and daughter making cobblestones. {Photograph}: Romita Saluja

As consciousness of recent slavery and trafficking has grown, some nations have handed legal guidelines to guard towards exploitation of staff. In 2015, the UK handed the Fashionable Slavery Act, which requires firms with a worldwide turnover of greater than £36m to publish an announcement yearly outlining how they’re addressing slavery, together with youngster labour, of their provide chains. However the way in which the trade works makes it extraordinarily exhausting to hint shipments of stone again to the mine they got here from, and even the world. Sandstone slabs extracted from mines are often despatched to processing centres near city areas, and from there, warehoused close to transport hubs till they’re shipped abroad. “It is vitally tough so that you can pinpoint which stone goes to which nation,” stated Madhavan Pillai, an unbiased journalist and researcher specializing in labour points. “They’ve created quite a lot of layers.”

Some non-public firms have labored with governments, commerce unions and NGOs, such because the Moral Buying and selling Initiative, to develop programmes that declare to determine and remove human trafficking and trendy slavery in provide chains. Because of these efforts, a number of mine-operating teams in Rajasthan banished youngsters from the mines, and plenty of firms promoting stone from India now embrace anti-slavery declarations on their web sites. However my very own analysis has proven that these cleanup efforts haven’t gone far sufficient.

Throughout my five-month investigation, I discovered that many mining companies are nonetheless utilizing youngster labour. Some had devised a artistic workaround for using youngsters: as a substitute of sending youngsters to the mines, vehicles would drop heaps of stone on roadsides near the kids’s properties. I visited 5 mining villages in Rajasthan, and spoke with dozens of grownup and youngster staff, all of whom shared an analogous story of low pay, exploitation and harm. Sonu and his pals, all underneath 10 years previous, are hammering stones as a substitute of going to highschool. It appears the sandstone paving blocks so beloved of architects and panorama gardeners should still be the fruit of kid labour.


Five a long time in the past, Budhpura was little greater than a sandstone-rich hill with a cluster of underground mines, with a number of migrant staff residing in shanty ­cities close by. Munna was one of many staff who got here to dwell on that hill within the Sixties, spending most of his days within the mine, hand-cutting the sandstone and making slabs. It was sizzling and dusty work, and the pay was horrible. “It was very tough,” he recalled.

Right this moment, the hill has been levelled. The migrants who arrived to work within the mines have been joined by their households – there are greater than 4,000 individuals residing in Budhpura now – however the village isn’t an lively mining space any extra. The worldwide demand for sandstone for development and ornamental paving has been so in depth that Budhpura’s shares have been critically depleted. After the larger items of stone have been taken out, what’s left are damaged rocks, or quarry waste.

About 20 years in the past, when mining operations started to exhaust the extractable sandstone reserves close to Budhpura and its neighbouring villages, mining and processing companies began dumping the waste on the edges of the freeway that connects the area to different cities. Right here, staff – largely youngsters, ladies and older individuals – would sit all day, turning the waste into cobbles for a rupee per stone. Given the meagre pay, this work was solely undertaken by those that couldn’t discover work contained in the mines, stated Rana Sengupta, the CEO of the Mine Labour Safety Marketing campaign Belief, a nonprofit in Rajasthan. “[The businesses] didn’t take into account it an unlawful factor,” he informed me.

Right this moment, throughout the village, sandstone waste – lumps of tan and gray rocks and rubble – lies in heaps. It’s exhausting to discover a patch of vacant land that isn’t occupied by piles of dusty stone, or stacked with wood crates of cobbles ready to be loaded on to vehicles. The crates are unlabelled, and the vehicles bear no insignia that will inform the employees who they work for, or the vacation spot of the merchandise of their labour. I requested Munna, who now makes cobblestones, if he knew the title of the corporate he works for. “We don’t know concerning the firm, however we all the time hear that [the sandstone] goes to overseas nations,” he stated. About 40 different staff informed me one thing related. The availability chains are lengthy and complicated, and exhausting to observe.

Sandstone waste lies in heaps throughout Budhpura. {Photograph}: Romita Saluja

On a sizzling afternoon final summer time, about 20 ladies sat in an open space the place the hill as soon as stood, working in teams on batches of stones. One of many ladies, taking shelter from the blazing solar underneath a tattered umbrella, positioned a skinny steel plate on prime of a sandstone block and drew round its edges to get a near-perfect white rectangle. Then, utilizing a chisel and hammer, she began chopping away across the rectangle, producing a smaller block.

The stonecutters are employed – on a shift by shift foundation, with out contracts – by native brokers. These brokers report to, or commerce with, processing companies in a largely casual market, much less regulated than the mines. The trade can be closely tainted by the “mining mafia”, native gangs and brokers working illegally on behalf of mining firms that get pleasure from political backing and authorized protections.

In 2005, Pillai, the journalist and researcher, compiled a broadly circulated report that targeted on labour points. Since then, there was rising stress on international companies to examine whether or not there was youngster labour of their operations. “Some European and British firms visited after the report and noticed that [child labour] was a quite common observe. They stated they wouldn’t purchase the stones,” Sengupta stated.

One such firm was Marshalls, a British provider of exhausting landscaping and constructing supplies. In December 2006, the corporate despatched its then advertising director Chris Harrop to tour Rajasthan’s mining villages, and he reported being “appalled” by the dimensions of kid labour. Marshalls joined the Moral Buying and selling Initiative, which, with assist from the UK Overseas and Commonwealth Workplace, helped set up the Sustainability Discussion board on Pure Stones, a neighborhood nonprofit that works on human rights points, notably youngster labour, in provide chains. In 2019, Harrop was awarded an OBE for providers to the prevention of recent slavery.

Nonetheless, after I visited Budhpura final yr, I discovered that the issue was very removed from solved.


Following Pillai’s report, tales appeared within the media about working situations within the mines, and native mining operations made modifications to their working practices. However these modifications didn’t resolve the downside; they merely relocated it.

Pillai, who has visited a few of these villages a number of instances up to now 20 years, informed me that companies used to make use of youngsters straight contained in the mines, or in workshops. However now, “your entire village has turn into a workshop,” he stated. The stones are dumped exterior individuals’s properties, on intersections, near the place the employees dwell. “They’ve turned it right into a form of cottage trade, [where] it turns into simple for them to say that we don’t drive [them to work], youngsters simply do it [on their own].”

Anita and Sonu now stroll a number of hundred metres down their avenue they usually discover their pile of stones ready for them. A tractor routinely dumps the rubble. They work underneath the attention of a supervisor, who counts the completed cobbles, after which the tractor returns to gather them. An grownup employee could make someplace between 100 and 150 stones in a day, for which they’re paid about 3,500 rupees (£33) a month.

My investigation into 5 villages in Rajasthan’s Bundi and Bhilwara districts discovered that in each one, stones have been dumped in a similar way round staff’ properties, the place youngsters labored alongside their moms. In India, it’s unlawful for kids underneath 14 to be employed in hazardous occupations similar to mining. So the stones, the employees say, include an injunction: don’t inform anybody concerning the youngsters.

On my first day in Budhpura final yr, staff hid their youngsters even earlier than I may converse with them: certainly one of them later confessed that that they had seen my automotive. On one other day, as I travelled by way of the villages on a motorcycle, younger girls and boys began operating away after they noticed me. Once I lastly sat down with staff one afternoon, exterior somebody’s residence in a sequestered nook of a mining village, they informed me that that they had been suggested by the native brokers to not converse with me.

A stone mine in Rajasthan. {Photograph}: Himanshu Sharma/AFP/Getty Photos

Dilip Singh, the president of the Rajasthan Barad Khan Mazdoor Sangh, a union of mine staff, stated that many mine leaseholders nonetheless make use of youngsters contained in the quarries. Others solely make use of grownup staff, however promote their waste to a processing enterprise that hires youngster staff to make stones exterior the mines. “It permits them to chorus from straight using youngsters,” Singh stated – however nonetheless to revenue from youngster labour.

Akshaydeep Mathur, the secretary normal of the Federation of Mining Associations of Rajasthan, an organisation representing the pursuits of mining firms in Rajasthan, stated that the majority mines comply with the foundations, however acknowledged that processing companies might have began dumping stones round staff’ properties to keep away from scrutiny. Nonetheless, he added that the majority firms use machines to chop stones nowadays and are much less prone to want handbook labour. Moreover, he stated, youngsters will not be robust sufficient to do that work. He acknowledged that “there could also be some 14- to 18-year-old youngsters who assist their mother and father on the finish of the day,” however stated that their numbers are low, “lower than 2%”. He additionally stated that companies pay a minimal of 700 rupees as each day wage to staff. If any able-bodied particular person makes lower than that – which was the case for all the employees I spoke to – he stated they’re “both not good or not working eight hours a day”.

Between September 2023 and January 2024, I despatched emails and textual content messages, and made dozens of cellphone calls to authorities our bodies accountable for the safety of youngsters’s rights. None supplied a significant response. The labour division of Rajasthan requested me to talk with India’s labour ministry in New Delhi – which didn’t reply to my calls – whereas certainly one of Rajasthan’s Baby Welfare Committees and the Rajasthan Directorate for Baby Rights both didn’t reply or declined to speak concerning the state of affairs.

In response to my findings, Emma Crates, enterprise and human rights supervisor at Marshalls – which is now not a member of the Moral Buying and selling Initiative – famous that the challenges dealing with the trade are always altering, which implies the corporate should proceed to evolve. “In 2006, we restricted our Indian pure stone provide chain in an effort to supply from a single, direct provider. This determination was taken to allow us to construct a more in-depth working relationship with that provider, and ease the rollout of strict protocols, together with zero tolerance of kid labour.

“We’re all the time seeking to develop our technique, which incorporates persevering with with worldwide website visits from Marshalls workers, and bringing in additional unbiased third-party audits,” she stated in an e-mail.


A lengthy white line runs throughout the again of 14-year-old Amar’s hand, which he acquired from the jagged fringe of a stone. Beside it are two scars, marks of the time when his hammer missed its goal and sliced into his hand as a substitute. Accidents like these are so widespread amongst cobblestone staff of all ages that they hardly count on any medical help from employers for such “minor accidents”.

Amar prevented work for so long as he may. However he’s the oldest youngster in his household, and when his father acquired silicosis, he needed to begin bringing in cash. Silicosis is a deadly lung illness characterised by shortness of breath and a cough. It’s attributable to extended publicity to positive silica particles present in sand, quartz and rocks. Someday earlier than her husband’s loss of life 4 years in the past, when the respiratory sickness confined him to mattress, Amar’s mom, Sumitra, took a mortgage that was too large for her to repay whereas caring for a sick husband and 6 youngsters. That’s when Amar, then aged 10, give up college and began work. The 80 rupees he now makes each day doesn’t do a lot to pay the payments (or repay the debt), nevertheless it’s higher than nothing.

Greater than 11 million individuals residing in India have been uncovered to silicosis-causing mud. Till a number of years in the past, silicosis was sometimes misdiagnosed as tuberculosis, as a result of the 2 illnesses have very related signs. This largely left staff to cope with the sickness with out employers’ or authorities help. In Budhpura, I used to be informed, many staff don’t search remedy for sickness or harm, due to the price of travelling to a hospital. It prices 2,000 rupees to get to Kota, the closest metropolis. “Folks merely drop useless if they will’t afford it,” one stonecutter informed me.

One solution to cut back the quantity of mud produced by mining is by moist drilling, the place water is utilized to the stone by way of the drill as it really works. In 1961, the Indian authorities dominated that moist drilling can be necessary in mining operations, however this has not been applied broadly. Activists have additionally referred to as for staff to be supplied with protecting gear, similar to masks, gloves and helmets. However the individuals I spoke to informed me that that hasn’t occurred. “Masks? They can’t even get us ingesting water,” one feminine stonecutter, who lives in Budhpura, informed me. Moreover, a masks makes it exhausting for them to work within the sizzling local weather; temperatures in Rajasthan can attain over 45C in the summertime.

A truck carries cobblestones out of Budhpura. {Photograph}: Romita Saluja

Budhpura has been referred to as the “village of widows” in some media reviews, due to what number of males have been killed by silicosis. These widows are elevating their youngsters on their very own, pressured to work in the identical trade that killed their husbands. And so they take their infants to work. Earlier than they sit all the way down to beat the stones, they often thrust two rods into the bottom close by and tie up a fabric between them to behave as a crib for the child.

Mathur, from the Federation of Mining Associations, informed me that fears about silicosis are “blown out of proportion”. He claims that worldwide lobbies have been utilizing deceptive and previous knowledge to harm the enterprise pursuits of the nation’s mining trade. He agrees that moist drilling can carry down the danger of respiratory diseases, and that many firms are adopting it. However doing so isn’t all the time attainable. “At some locations there’s a scarcity of water,” he informed me. He additionally argued that accountability for stopping silicosis lies with the processing trade, which turns sandstone into totally different merchandise similar to paving blocks. “Processing is a separate trade altogether. You would possibly say silicosis is coming from mining. But it surely’s coming from the processing trade.”

In 2019, following years of wrestle by staff and activists, Rajasthan grew to become the primary Indian state to launch a complete coverage providing assist to silicosis sufferers. The state authorities now supplies 300,000 rupees (round £2,800) for remedy that alleviates the silicosis affected person’s signs, and a further sum of about 200,000 rupees (£1,900) to their household after loss of life. However a lot of the quantity paid to the bereaved relations, staff say, is spent on their very own medical remedies and debt compensation, which presents them little alternative to maneuver away from the trade and search for more healthy jobs. “The fee of human life is simply 500,000 rupees,” fumed Shankar Singh, the activist.

As I sat with Amar’s mom, overlooking the hills of depleting sandstone in entrance of us, I requested her if her son ever complains about having to work. “He does, after all. However what can I do? My palms are tied. We’d like meals on the desk,” she stated.

The sound of steel placing on a stone within the distance stuffed the air as a younger youngster in entrance of us performed together with his toy vehicles and tractors. “Our husbands used to do that work,” she stated. “They acquired silicosis. We’ll ultimately get it too. And so will our kids.”


At about 1pm, Pooja comes again from college; it takes her half-hour by foot to get to her village of Dhaneshwar, about 20km away from Budhpura. Then there are family chores. By 2pm, she is along with her mom, crouched down round a pile of stones with a hammer and chisel. For the subsequent 4 hours, Pooja makes cobblestones, often about 50 of them. Pooja, who’s 14, desires to be a physician. Her checks have been approaching once we met, so she was placing in additional hours after dinner, which is when she often sits all the way down to do homework.

Pooja’s father died of silicosis in 2014. She is effectively conscious that it’s going to be an uphill battle to review drugs. Her mom is aware of it, too. “However towards all odds, I’m nonetheless sending her to highschool,” her mom stated, satisfaction in her voice. She hopes that her daughter can proceed in class at the least till she turns 16, though she must work at stonecutting after hours.

Many youngsters work in situations which might be “hell on earth”, in line with Colin Gonsalves, a senior lawyer at India’s supreme court docket and the founding father of the Human Rights Legislation Community in New Delhi. India’s Baby Labour Act is just not being enforced, he informed me. He blames corruption amongst labour officers and negligence within the judiciary, in addition to Narendra Modi’s authorities’s aggressive give attention to financial progress.

One solution to remove youngster labour, some activists say, is to lift the mother and father’ revenue. “If you happen to don’t pay [adult workers] the correct quantity, individuals will likely be pressured to carry youngsters to the mines,” stated Sengupta, the labour campaigner. But there’s little signal that there will likely be main wage reform any time quickly. Gonsalves stated that the one answer right here is to take authorized motion. “Nothing else will work. If you happen to litigate and get an excellent choose, one thing might change,” he stated.

Lots of the staff I met informed me that they’d give up this work if they might. However they don’t have any different technique of help. Shutting down the cobble enterprise would take away most of the staff’ solely attainable supply of revenue. Agriculture will not be an alternate for them. “Who [owns] land right here? We’re all migrants,” Munna stated.

“There’s no different factor on this village, besides these stones,” one other employee added.

As an alternative, a few of them informed me, they need higher protecting measures similar to housing and healthcare. “Shut the cobble enterprise down solely when you’ve got one other job for us,” one other stated.

A neighborhood activist identified that even when they have been in a position to persuade native mining and processing companies to enhance situations, and to spend cash on constructing playgrounds and training centres, it could not resolve the issue. The companies’ prices would go up, and so would their costs. “And after they go to {the marketplace}, they see the Whites shopping for from firms that provide the bottom costs. What do you do then?”

Amar desires of enjoying cricket sometime. Sonu, nevertheless, desires to be a physician like Pooja. He misses going to highschool, he informed me, nevertheless it’s costly and much away. He does hope, although, that he and his pals may catch up for a session of cricket sometime. However now he must get again to work, the place he’ll beat, pound and craft cobblestones within the warmth of Rajasthan for at the least 4 extra hours.

The names of the stone staff have been modified. This article was produced with the help of the Journalism Centre on World Trafficking




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