Stone Voices

Stone Voices

They whisper still, the ancient stones
The blunted mountains weep
As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make things cheap
And say the Mea Culpa which you’ve probably forgot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought
— Words from “Steer Your Way” by Leonard Cohen, 2016

In the deepest, darkest, mostly unseen recesses of global stone supply chains, some of the world’s poorest people are striving, with help from local NGOs, to educate their kids and improve their lives. So far, we in the West aren’t doing enough to help them.

I visited India early September last year and my TFT colleagues took me to Rajasthan to visit cobblestone producers. TFT’s Responsible Stone Program works in India with factories and quarries to support human rights and health and safety improvements for workers. There is much to do.

I recorded a podcast with the villagers and while it’s a little long, I deliberately chose not to overlay their voices with translation. That would have cut the podcast’s duration in half – great for busy listeners – but would have robbed the people of the chance to be heard.

Featured in the podcast is Varun from an organisation called Aravali. Aravali support local NGOs who work to improve the lives of stone and quarry workers.  We visited Paranagujar Village in Bundi District. It is part of the overall Budhpura village area which has become the go to place for visiting journalists who want to profile the deprivations quarry workers face so we in the West can have cheap stone products.

There are many quarries in Bundi District and most workers labour in inhumane conditions. A report from Thompson Reuters Foundation last May highlighted the scale of the problem. Child labour is rife as are health issues, most insidiously silicosis, the terrible lung-destroying disease caused by people inhaling silica dust from the stones they break every day without protective equipment. There is no cure and death is painful. Aravali is supporting a local NGO called Manjiri who has established a project to create a “child labour free zone” in Budhpura and to help kids go to school. It’s a small glimmer of hope in and otherwise grim tale of exploitation and suffering.

Indian cobblestones. Beautiful, cheap, but often deadly to the workers who make them by hand

Indian cobblestones. Beautiful, cheap, but often deadly to the workers who make them by hand

It is easy to criticise government and wonder how it can allow the situation to endure. But before casting stones of blame elsewhere, we might first look to ourselves.

Cobblestones are cheap and some stakeholders I spoke to seek to pass blame for the situation in the villages to Western companies not prepared to pay even a meagre amount more for the product that would allow them to pay a higher price to the workers. Stone has become a commodity and prices are sharp so there isn’t much room to move. Our Responsible Stone Program has seen progress over the past years but it has been painfully slow. There always seems to be the issue of price hanging over every discussion. “If we could get more for the product, we could do more for the workers”. If, if, if.

It seems that we’re saying, “I can’t do anything to stop those children or their parents dying because my customers won’t pay more for the product”. Death and suffering is OK then because it costs too much to avoid? I’d prefer a more inspirational approach.

The stone importers we work with want the situation to change. But all importers should ask, “Do we want our products to kill people?” “Do we want our products to rob children of an education, their parents?” “Do we want our products to poison water supplies?” If the answer is “Our customers won’t pay more, nothing we can do” then we’re abrogating our humanity.

I don’t think that’s OK. Companies downstream from the villagers in stone supply chains do profit. Of course, government could do more but what might be achieved if Western companies – let’s not wait for consumers – said “NO!” to this horrific situation and teamed up with local NGOs, the government and the communities themselves?

Our work with our TFT Responsible Stone Program partners tells us there are committed companies investing to make things better. We need to accelerate this work and we need to break through the “if only the price was better” barrier.

I hope you can listen to the voices of these people. Listen to the joy from the children who are now going to school, who wonder if there might be an opportunity to break free. These are the voices of stonemasons who are dying to send us cheap, beautiful but deathly nasty products that we pay precious little for. Hear the voice of Lakshmi who lost her father to silicosis and ask, “Is that OK?”

There is absolutely no reason why this situation has to prevail. It’s up to us, “year by year, month by month, day by day, thought by thought” to change it.

 

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