John Lewis and Habitat have pulled a range of granite worktops from sale over concerns their supply chains may be tainted with slavery and child labour.
Many other high-street businesses selling granite products such as kitchen worktops, tiles and tombstones are also likely to scrutinise their supply chains after investigators discovered that debt bondage, underage workers and unsafe, unhealthy working conditions are part and parcel of daily working life in Indian quarries.
India is the largest global producer of granite, accounting for 49% of the world’s raw stone export in 2015. Three-quarters of the country’s granite is mined in just three states – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka. An investigation of 22 quarries and six waste stone processing sites in these states, recently published by the Dutch organisations India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) and Stop Child Labour, revealed major human rights and labour rights violations.
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The violations included children under 14 working in waste stone processing, wages tied to extortionate loans, and safety equipment offered only when mining inspections were taking place.
The quarries’ performance was graded on six criteria: child labour, bonded labour, wages and social benefits, health, safety, and freedom of association.
More than 30 natural stone companies from the UK, EU, US, Australia and Canada are named in the report as sourcing products from the 22 quarries. None of the quarries has a prevention system for child labour.
One particularly problematic product is star galaxy granite, which is famed for its shimmer and often retails for £300 a square metre. It hails from only one area in the world: Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh.
Diewertje Heyl, ICN’s corporate social responsibility officer, told the Observer that the granite belt is located in a specific area in Prakasam, and that quarries are consequently located “side by side” to extract the stone. “There are a few quarries where conditions are better than others, but by and large the poor conditions we described in the report are representative of the sector as a whole.”
Given the complexity of global supply chains, and the scale of abuses outlined in the report, it would be “almost impossible” to ensure that any star galaxy granite is free of labour or human rights irregularities, Heyl added.
John Lewis told the Observer that “in light of this report and pending further investigation, we have made the decision to remove from sale black/star galaxy granite and are currently investigating all granite sources worldwide”.
The statement continued: “As a socially responsible retailer, we require our suppliers not only to obey the law but also to respect the rights, interests and well being of their employees, their communities and the environment. We do not source granite directly. We work with one UK importer who has signed up to the John Lewis code of practice on responsible sourcing, which sets out in detail the standards that we expect our suppliers to meet on labour standards and the environment.”
Habitat kitchens are sold by the in-store concession Kütchenhaus, which is the UK subsidiary of German company Nobilia. Nobilia is the world’s biggest kitchen manufacturer.
In a statement, Nobilia confirmed that, although it doesn’t supply the granite worktops sold by its UK subsidiary, “star galaxy granite samples have been removed from the Habitat stores and Habitat have now stopped selling star galaxy [worktops].”
The statement continued: “All products that are sold in a store next to or in combination with Nobilia products (and could therefore be associated with Nobilia) should meet the same high welfare, environmental and quality standards as the products supplied by us and we do not hesitate to take appropriate action if any supplier is found to be in violation of these standards.”
The durability and versatility of granite, which is available in 200 shades, make it the most sought after stone in the world. It is used for everything from government buildings and pavements to kitchen worktops and gravestones, with prices often soaring to £350 a square metre for premium varieties.
Granite mining can be deadly: constant exposure to dust can cause the incurable lung disease silicosis, which is associated with tuberculosis and lung cancer. Mining accidents are common but often go unreported, and 62% of the workers told researchers they do not receive safety equipment unless there are labour inspections.
Yet granite suppliers, many of whom openly claim on their websites that they source from India, often describe their finished products in the most luxurious terms. Cosentino, a Spanish exporter named in the report which operates in 70 countries, boasts of its granite as “works of art that have required millennia to finish”.
The ICN report linked half a dozen UK companies – mistermarble, Grantech, Nile Trading, Blyth Marble, KSG UK and Beltrami – to the Indian quarries. All six also import star galaxy granite and have showrooms dotted around the country, from which they sell their stone products to individuals, tradesmen and businesses.
Grantech, based in north Wales and a “direct importer of granite from around the world”, has been linked in the report to one of the worst performing quarries, where workers are allegedly denied clean drinking water and child labour and debt bondage are rampant. Grantech’s director, Gregg Timothy Ashfield, is also the director of Buckley Memorials, a 250-year-old family business that counts expensive star galaxy granite tombstones among its products.
None of the six UK companies named in the report responded to requests for comment on their supply chains. The Observer also contacted a number of businesses around the UK selling granite worktops, tombstones and tiles, none of whom responded to requests for comment.
Gerard Oonk, director of ICN and senior adviser of the Stop Child Labour coalition, said: “Modern slavery is endemic in the granite industry and the UK market is an important destination for its products. We strongly urge both British stone companies and the UK government to take concerted action in tackling this issue, as real change is needed to save lives. The present Modern Slavery Act is not enough to make this happen alone, because more is needed than just reporting – and many smaller granite importers are not even obliged to report under this act.”
Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, said the report posed “profound questions” regarding India’s attempts to tackle slavery and child labour.
“Indian quarrying has long been a byword for abuse and exploitation,” said McQuade. “Yet the companies that still source from India’s quarries are notably silent, including in their modern slavery statements, on how they are engaging with the Indian government to obtain the necessary fundamental reform of this sector to ensure that the enslavement of adults and children in quarrying is brought to an end.”
Source: Guardian News and Media Limited