Migrant Workers in the Stone Industry
Marshalls plc is the leading innovator of hard landscaping solutions for both the commercial and domestic markets. With a significant manufacturing footprint in the UK it complements this with sourcing natural stone from around the world. It recognises the many complex ethical issues associated with this stone procurement and has for many years employed the specialist skills of Just Solutions’ Stirling Smith to carry out social audits at its supply chains in countries such as India, Vietnam and China.
The award-winning company has been a leader in ethical sourcing of stone and was concerned about reports of debt bondage in sandstone quarries in Rajasthan. Marshalls asked Just Solutions to investigate.
Debt bondage is a widespread problem in India. It constitutes the largest single concentration of people in modern slavery in the world today.
Just Solutions carried out a programme of literature review and interviews with key informants before sending our Delhi-based researcher to a remote part of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Workers from the very poor district of Jabhua cannot get work in agriculture, which is the main livelihood in the area, year-round, because it is drought-prone. Hence their survival strategy was to migrate to southern Rajasthan to work in quarries. Every year, huge numbers of workers migrate within India because they have very poor livelihood options in their home areas. The workers from Jhabua took loans to finance their initial migration costs and to support their families who stayed behind.
Our researcher spent several days in the area, trying to understand the dynamics of migration and the loans system. The conclusion we came to was that the situation was not debt bondage as defined in Indian law. A mistake that is sometimes made by NGOs and campaigners is to assume that because a debt exists, this automatically means debt bondage. The Indian Supreme Court has made it clear that this is not the case.
Because of the nature of stone quarrying, a single buyer has limited leverage because their requirement for a specific type of high quality stone will usually represent only a limited percentage of total output. Quarries may also be second, third or even fourth tier suppliers where workers are employed through a complex web of agents and contractors. But Marshalls is not complacent about the problem of debt bondage and all audits now pay particular attention to examining the issue of loans.
Marshalls is also looking at options for wider community support and leveraging government programmes; these often look good on paper, but are often poorly implemented and can suffer from “leakage”, a polite synonym for corruption. Helping to make these more effective would improve the living conditions of migrant workers and their families.