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Values carved in stone

Date: 8 Mar 2009
Author: Mallen Baker

Children carving a block of sandstone
Photo: Chris Harrop

2. Putting the pressure on the supply chain

Marshalls was not, and did not aspire to be, some social and environmental leader in its industry. But as Chris was writing his five year strategic plan thinking hard about what was coming for the industry during that period, it was pretty clear that carbon, sustainability, biodiversity, water and ethics was going to hit the stone industry just as it had others, like food and clothing.

So he began talking to various people, like the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), and got an audit done, which talked in non-specific terms about non-conformances. And he decided that the best thing to do was to get out there and "walk the supply chain". Nothing quite beats seeing things with your own eyes.

He went to India, got in the car, and drove to the initial source of extraction to follow it from the quarry, the loading, the processing, the taking into the yard, the splitting, the crating, the packing, the fumigation, loading, the lot.

What he saw on that first trip was total environmental devastation around the quarries, and desperate poverty amongst the people that surrounded them. What he saw the next time he went was even worse.

Whilst visiting one of the quarries that supplied Marhsalls, he noticed more activity across the road. Another quarry, as it turned out one of the many illegal quarries. He decided to go and have a look, and was confronted by the sight of two children, around 10 and 14 years old, using a jackhammer to split sandstone. They wore no protective equipment, no protective footwear, nothing. Nearby there were two girls sitting in a spoil heap chiselling away at pieces of stone. He found that that these girls were the same age as his own children. That brought it home.

Before long, the owner of the quarry turned up on his motorbike, sporting the must-have management device for illegal quarry owners in India - an AK47 rifle. A respectful retreat followed.

But things had to change. Now, Marshalls has consolidated its supply of Indian sandstone around one agent who can either outright own, or represent more than 85 percent of the business of, every quarry that supplies them. That way, they can require that there are proper safe working practices and no child labour. They also support a local not-for-profit organisation to run schools for the children of migrant workers to try to get an alternative for the kids who end up engaged in this hard, dirty, dangerous manual labour.

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Further reading

Marshalls website on Indian Sandstone
Chris Harrop's Indian Sandstone blog
Interview with Chris Harrop

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1 comment for this feature

Comment by: Ashwini Saxena on 14 Mar 2010

Its good that Marshalls has realised the underlining causes of the plight of the rural poor in India, especially the children, who even if wish to go to school, find themselves in quarries since their family cannot support them for the same. However, picking up from the video, focussing on one single supplier to ensure all supplies from India means an undue advantage to one single firm and thus distorts the business dynamics. Then what happens to the small mining businesses. Further, the choice of the NGO is again questionable.

"What he saw on that first trip was total environmental devastation around the quarries, and desperate poverty amongst the people that surrounded them. What he saw the next time he went was even worse."

Key facts

Up to 20 percent of workers in Indian sandstone quarries are believed to be children, about a million children in total, some as young as six.

Occupational diseases are common among quarry workers. Silicosis, tuberculosis and bronchitis come from breathing in the dust. And poor conditions provide an ideal breeding ground for malaria.

Illegal quarries are common, and routinely flout labour standards and safety laws

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