New report by American Bar Association exposes the dark underbelly of Indo-US sandstone trade

New report by American Bar Association exposes the dark underbelly of Indo-US sandstone trade

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published Published on Sep 4, 2020   modified Modified on Sep 4, 2020

Often exports made by a country to the rest of the world is seen in a positive light by us. It is because exports not only earn precious foreign currencies (that can be used for importing goods and services or simply be used for building forex reserves), it also helps in generating effective demand for goods and services produced in that country and hence, contributes to economic or GDP growth. But what if somebody tells you that in the production and export of a particular commodity, slave labour and child labour is used and the entire production process is detrimental to environment? Would the economic actors involved in the supply chain still continue business as usual?

Prepared by staff and consultants of the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, the report entitled Tainted Stones: Bonded Labor and Child Labor in the India-US Sandstone Supply Chain has studied the country's sandstone supply chain in reference to the United States (US) and has investigated whether sandstones imported by the US cause human rights violations. Please note that the import of products that uses forced or child labour into the United States is prohibited by its law.

Sandstone trade 

Citing existing studies, the present report on Indo-US sandstone trade mentions that the workers who work at the quarry sites located in Rajasthan are subjected to bonded labour, child labour, low wages, and inhumane working conditions. There exists inadequate occupational health and safety safeguards for the sandstone mine workers.

The report has pointed out that a little less than one-third of the world's natural sandstone (i.e. 27 percent) is produced in India. In terms of economic value, the export of sandstone from India to the United State of America (USA) has more than doubled between 2014-15 and 2018-19 i.e. from US$ 7.35 million to US$ 16.78 million. Consequently, the share of US (as a destination) in India’s total sandstone export has increased from 5.26 percent in 2014-15 to 8.62 percent in 2018-19. In terms of volume, the total export of sandstone from India to the US has increased from nearly 6.05 crore pounds in 2014-15 to roughly 9.8 crore pounds in 2018-19. For details, please check table-1.

Source: Tainted Stones: Bonded Labor and Child Labor in the India-US Sandstone Supply Chain, please click here to access

Around three million workers are employed in sandstone mining industry of the country on a seasonal basis. The type of sandstone exported to the US is chiefly found in the districts of Kota, Bijolia, Bundi, and Dholpur of Rajasthan. Within Rajasthan, sandstone is quarried in 13 districts and an estimated 900 million tonnes of sandstone are spread over 34,000 square kilometers, mentions the report. Please consult chart-1.

Chart 1: Map showing the distribution of sandstone in Rajasthan

Source: Tainted Stones: Bonded Labor and Child Labor in the India-US Sandstone Supply Chain, please click here to access

For preparing the report entitled Tainted Stones: Bonded Labor and Child Labor in the India-US Sandstone Supply Chain, a review of relevant literature has been done, besides collecting government and private data. Researchers who worked for the report preparation, held preliminary interviews in 2018 and 2019 with interested stakeholders and conducted an analysis of the supply chain to identify three primary regions in Rajasthan from where sandstone is exported to the US. With the help of local NGOs, the interviewers drafted a questionnaire and conducted interviews among 120 mine workers in the three districts of Karauli, Bundi, and Kota (Rajasthan). Besides, five mine owners, two labour inspectors, six lawyers, and two judges were interviewed for preparing the report.

Labour rights

Despite the issuing of thousands of mining licenses and leases pertaining to sandstones in the state of Rajasthan, there exists a thriving unregulated and unlicensed market. The supply chain of sandstone industry in Rajasthan is often complicated, unregulated, and non-transparent. The degree of exploitation of labour varies depending on the stage of sandstone supply chain where one is stuck as a worker.

The report says that sandstone undergoes several stages of cutting, splitting, polishing, washing, and sale—all through multiple intermediaries—before the product reaches its final destination (i.e. countries like the USA). Human rights violations mostly take place at the quarry level on account of the unregulated nature of the work. Due to the lack of formal contract between employer and employee and ineffective implementation of existing protective legislation, mine owners and other actors (such as importers and high-profile buyers) in the supply chain are not legally held responsible for human rights violations happening at the quarry sites, states the report.

Most workers employed at the mines do not enjoy social protection benefits or access statutory benefits and social insurance under the law. Research done under the present study shows that no case has been found to be registered under the Employers Compensation Act, which is meant to provide compensation from the employer to the employee if the latter is injured in a workplace accident. This happens because there is no formal contract between employer and employee.

The employers do not maintain any record of its employees and there is hardly any compliance with the Mines Act 1952. The existing system does not empower the worker. There are no effective trade unions in the unorganised sector. Since the enforcement of labour laws in the mining sector is with the Central Government and laws governing the mine owners are of the state government, there is poor coordination in implementation of laws and regulations of the industry for the protection of workers and the environment.

Barriers to access local or transnational redress mechanisms by the mine workers include absence of documentary evidence of employment, opaque supply chains, dearth of resources, aggravated vulnerability, and weak regulatory systems established by government departments.

The report has found that mine workers are not aware about their basic rights and entitlements, including information on minimum wages, compensation for occupational hazards or diseases, regulation of working hours, sexual harassment laws, and maternity benefits. Survey-based research done for the report shows that over half of mine workers interviewed were unaware of the minimum wage that they are entitled to and more than 54 percent were unaware of the law requiring labour registration. Less than 13 percent of women mine workers were aware of the existence of laws that can protect them against sexual harassment. In the absence of sufficient financial training, some mine workers get pushed into a debt cycle (due to the prevalent system of peshgi) and eventually become a bonded labourer to his/ her lender. Nearly 90 percent of mine workers believe that trainings on basic human rights will be effective in creating awareness and help them understand and exercise their rights, states the report.

Government officers (working in departments concerning mines) interviewed during the survey felt the need for periodical and practical training to identify and tackle the issues on the ground. Sometimes, they are threatened with deaths for reporting violations by a mine owner or if they try to assist the mine workers, indicates the present study.

Debt bondage and labour market segmentation

On an advance payment of wages to the extent of US$ 700–1400 to mine workers prior to their employment, an exorbitant interest rate of 20 percent per annum is charged. As a consequence, a large section of the mine workers are pushed towards work without pay and, ultimately, poverty. In order to ensure consistent supply of labourers during the sandstone working season that coincides with agricultural work, the system of peshgi i.e. advance wage payment was initiated. Debt is passed to minor children of bonded workers, thus leading to inter-generational debt bondage. The transfer of loan obligation within a family of the bonded worker ensures a continuous supply of cheap labour for the employer. Please check chart-2 to understand debt bondage.

Chart 2: The cycle of debt, poverty and child bonded labour

Source: Tainted Stones: Bonded Labor and Child Labor in the India-US Sandstone Supply Chain, please click here to access

It is mostly the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe workers who are likely to become bonded labourers. Under the bonded labour system, the affected workers get no formal record of the money they borrow and are forced to accept the word of the mine owner related to the outstanding debt amount one has to repay back. In case a bonded labourer falls sick or passes away, the high-interest accruing debt given as wage advance is passed down to his children and family members.

Past studies show that across the South Asia region, almost 90 percent of bonded labourers are from Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe background. In the mines located in Rajasthan, around 95 percent of workers are from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe background. Nearly 37 percent of the total Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe mine workers are women and 15 percent are children. In order to get themselves treated against prolonged illnesses like silicosis and tuberculosis, mine workers often borrow more from their lenders/ employers. This happens despite their legal right to receive benefits for treating such illnesses.

Child labourers working in quarries are exposed to hazardous working conditions by carrying heavy stones in hot, dry, and dusty weather conditions. The mining life of child labourers start when they accompany their parents to work sites.

Table 2: Wage rates for different categories of work, in US$ per day

Source: Tainted Stones: Bonded Labor and Child Labor in the India-US Sandstone Supply Chain, please click here to access

Wages of the mine workers vary as per one’s skill set, gender and caste background. It is generally the male supervisors and accountants (Rs. US$ 8-10 per day) who receive the highest wage rate. The female workers employed for loading/ unloading (Rs. US$ 2-3 per day) receive the lowest wage rate. Please see table-2.

Sandstone mining also leads to the degradation of top-soil thus affecting the surrounding flora and fauna of the area, finds the report on Indo-US sandstone trade. Quarry waste, which is often dumped at the nearest available area surrounding the mining areas, causes environmental pollution because it reduces the porosity of the land and prevents growth of any vegetation. Crystalline silica, a dangerous dust, which is created during sandstone production, can cause a lethal lung disease called silicosis. The crystalline silica dust is detrimental to human, plant, and animal life in the surrounding areas where sandstone mining takes place.

The key findings of the report entitled Tainted Stones: Bonded Labor and Child Labor in the India-US Sandstone Supply Chain (released in August, 2020) by American Bar Association's Center for Human Rights are as follows:

• Three million workers are employed in India’s sandstone mining industry on a seasonal basis, with nearly 90 percent of India’s sandstone production taking place in the state of Rajasthan. The United States of America is the fourth largest importer of sandstone from India, with a total import of 97 million pounds valued at US$ 16.7 million in 2018-19.

• The sandstone industry located in Rajasthan is tarnished by serious issues, including bonded labour; fatal diseases like silicosis; high injury rates; inconsistent pay; structural discrimination of women, ethnic minorities, and caste groups; and environmental degradation.

• Reports from 2009 and 2010 suggest that as many as 3.75 lakh child labourers are employed in Rajasthan quarries.  

• Although mine regulation falls under the Union and State Lists (i.e. Concurrent List), the regulation of labour and safety employed in the mines is subject to the Union List. It means mine workers fall under the purview of Central legislations, while mines fall under the domain of the state governments.

• Under the Constitution of India, the Central Government regulates the safety, welfare, and health of mine workers through its two arms: the Director General of Mines Safety (DGMS) and the Indian Bureau of Mines. DGMS is the regulatory authority that comes under the Ministry of Labour and Employment and it is in charge of occupational safety health, and welfare of mine workers. The Central Government passed the Mines Act 1952 and various regulations and orders for the protection of mine workers.

• Minerals found in India are classified as either major or minor under the Mines and Minerals Regulation and Development Act 1957 (MMRDA). Major minerals are administered by the Central Government and minor minerals like sandstone and limestone are administered by the state government. In the case of sandstone, the government of Rajasthan has the authority to prescribe laws and regulations, collect royalties and taxes, and prohibit illegal mining. The state also has the responsibility to provide requisite environmental clearances.

• Despite having several laws and regulations pertaining to the mining industry for the protection of workers and the environment, poor coordination in implementation of these laws act as an obstacle for the full realisation of these laws. This becomes worse because of the difficulty of identifying the employment relationship between mine owners and workers.

• An average mine worker starts work early in the morning and works for 8–10 hours. A recent study indicated that 77 percent of men and 43 percent of women reported working more than eight hours a day. Working hours also exceed the daily or weekly limit of 10 hours per day or 60 hours per week prescribed under the Mines Act 1952 and the Factories Act 1948. Workers rarely get paid for rest days or legal holidays, bonuses and allowances, or in-kind benefits such as transportation costs, meals, health benefits, etc.

• It may be noted that Indian law provides for strict requirements on wages, a violation of which leads to fines; for example, the Minimum Wages Act of 1948 provides a framework within which each state government is responsible for fixing and enforcing minimum wages for different industries. Besides, the Payment of Wages Act which applies to all factories and mines prescribes for the wage period to be set monthly or weekly. This Act also prescribes penalties to be imposed on employers who fail to maintain records, or obstructs an inspector discharging his duty. Rajasthan Minerals (Prevention of Illegal Mining, Transportation and Storage) Rules 2007 is relevant since it requires every mine owner to maintain a regular register of wages paid to employees. Apart from these, the Payment of Gratuity Act 1972, the Employees Provident Act 1952, and the Payment of Bonus Act 1965 are applicable to mine workers. Moreover, the Constitution of India provides for workers to receive living wages and conditions of work that ensure a decent standard of life and full employment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities.

• Unregistered or unlicensed mines do not come under the radar of inspections and compliance measures contemplated under the Mines Act and meant to ensure occupational health and safety standards.

• While the total number of silicosis cases has not been assessed by governmental agencies, estimates range up to 26,000 patients currently dealing with the disease. Existing studies indicate that close to 56 percent of mine workers are affected by this disease. The disease has reduced the life expectancy of a mine worker to 40 years with a 42 percent chance of contracting this disease in the worker’s lifetime. It is now established that silicosis patients do not live more than 20 years from the onset of symptoms. In line with internationally-recognised lists of occupational diseases, silicosis is flagged in list of occupational diseases recognised by the Factories Act 1948 and the Employees Compensation Act 1923, which mandate employers to provide compensation or access to health care to workers who contract it as an occupational disease.

• The estimated life term of a quarry worker is between 40-50 years with many workers dying of silicosis. The premature death of male labourers often pushes a large population of women towards poverty, making them more vulnerable to social and economic exploitation when left without the support of a male household member as women are compelled to support the entire household. Some villages adjoining mines are known as “villages of widows” because there is a high concentration of widows and very low number of males above the age of 35.

• Women are allotted semi-skilled or unskilled jobs in the industry, such as hand picking waste, loading stones to trucks, and chiseling quarry waste to smaller tiles or cobbles. Women are employed both on piece rate and daily wage basis. In a daily wage system, women earn around US$ 2–3 for work from dawn to dusk.

• The unregulated nature of the work also prevents women from demanding healthcare benefits such as maternity leave, creche, toilets, or compensation after an occupational injury. In the absence of an appropriate system for childcare or maternity leave, women are forced to carry their children to mines, thus exposing them to the hazardous working conditions.

• Poverty and landlessness prevents sandstone workers from being able to afford proper housing, toilets, and livestock. Most workers spend their entire lives in kachha houses, which are semi-permanent structures constructed using stone slabs without any binding material, like cement or lime. The land for these houses is usually granted by the mine owners in the surrounding area of the mines to ensure easy availability. Workers are forced to vacate if they quit that particular mine. Most people use dirty water from the quarries for bathing and washing clothes, often walking a minimum of 5–7 kilometers to fetch potable water.

• The state government of Rajasthan has issued 3,403 mining leases for major minerals, 11,861 mining leases for minor minerals, as well as 18,249 quarry licenses, says the report. While there is a common practice of unregulated and unlicensed mining, there is no authoritative data comparing regulated and unregulated mining. Sandstone deposits in Rajasthan are confined to an area of 16,000 square kilometers, about 10,000 of which lie in eastern and south-eastern Rajasthan and 6,000 are in western Rajasthan. Every area has a characteristic colour that is crucial to placing a purchase order.

• Explaining unregulated and unlicensed mining, the report says that business enterprises enter into partnership with villagers who own the land and run mines with or without obtaining licenses from the government. Although a number of leases are held in the name of villagers, they are actually operated by powerful people of that area.

• Although the District Mineral Foundation (DMF) was instituted under the Mines and Minerals Regulation and Development Act 1957 (MMRDA) with the purpose to “work for the interest and benefit of persons, and areas affected by mining-related operations” as a trust, an evaluation by Centre for Science and Environment shows it has failed its mandate so far because it has not sufficiently met its goals.

• Sandstone is sold in the form of polished or unpolished slabs, tiles, blocks, steps, paving stone/ flagstone, cobbles, and garden accessories which are then used by US buyers in lobbies, kitchens (countertops), gardens, pathways, terraces, and entrances in commercial and residential buildings.

• The sandstone mining process begins by obtaining a lease license from the Central Government for quarrying. Different government agencies are involved in giving permission for sandstone mining, including the Department of Mines and Geology, the Department of Forests and Environment, the Revenue Department, and local rural government bodies like Panchayat Samiti.

• The mine owners may or may not run a processing unit. All mines studied in this report were owned by Indian nationals rather than international corporations. In the case the mine owners do not own a processing unit, they mine the stones and transport to another company for processing. After the stones are processed, they are sent to a warehouse or purchasing office to be stored until they are exported or transported for domestic consumption.

• After extraction, stones are sent to processing units for drilling, channeling, cutting or sawing, surface grinding, polishing, edge trimming, sorting, and packaging. In recent years, some mines have upgraded to modern methods by using mining machinery such as compressors, machines for drilling and blasting, cranes for lifting large blocks, and dampers and trucks for transport.

• Sandstone exporters from India will establish specifications for stones requested or required by international importers and then commission their purchasing offices in different mining districts to package and send the stones to ports for exporting.

• To ensure compliance with its international obligations, the Government of India should strengthen its national legal protection framework by introducing legal reforms, strengthening its inspection mechanisms, and effectively enforcing the registration of workers with the mining companies and quarries. It should undertake a robust evidence-based approach to determine the prevalence of bonded labour and child bonded labour in the industry by publishing new studies while also examining existing state-level surveys of bonded labour.

• The US Government should closely monitor the presence of forced labour in the mining, processing, and importation of sandstones from India. It is also essential for the US Government to make it mandatory for US companies to report on bonded labour and child labour in their supply chain and conduct other due diligence measures in line with US law, along with UN and OECD guidelines and ILO principles.

• It is imperative for US and Indian companies to exercise due diligence to ensure that all business partners follow internationally-recognised guidelines to respect human and worker rights. Enterprises should prioritise developing an industry-wide code of conduct based on internationally-recognised standards and codes of practice, to be implemented throughout the company’s supply chain in order to fulfil their human rights due diligence.

• Civil society organisations and trade unions have a critical role to play in promoting and protecting the rights of mining workers by advocating for their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. They should also support further development of workers’ cooperatives to promote decent work conditions in the industry. Furthermore, civil society actors should provide workers with legal assistance in order to guarantee legal redress of workers’ human rights grievances. Such a comprehensive approach will ensure accountability in the sandstone mining industry.



Tainted Stones: Bonded Labor and Child Labor in the India-US Sandstone Supply Chain, American Bar Association Center for Human Rights, August 2020, please click here to access

Image Courtesy: Tainted Stones: Bonded Labor and Child Labor in the India-US Sandstone Supply Chain


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