Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The plight of Nepal’s child quarry workers ... who slave to keep our patios plush

SHANTI LAMA lifts a basket full of rocks on to her back. Dressed in pink, she wipes sweat from her brow, then slowly starts to climb a wooden ladder wedged into a pit dug into the hill. It's midday and an unrelenting sun blazes down from a perfect blue sky. Shanti reaches the top rung then carries the load to a woman sitting under an umbrella. After tipping out the stones, Shanti sits and picks up a small rock hammer to break them up. She is 12 years old.

This is child labour in a stone quarry in Nepal. We are in Adinath in the Swoyambhu area on the outskirts of the nation's capital city, Kathmandu. Shanti, who has been here since 6am working alongside her mother and father, became a quarry worker at the age of 10. She doesn't usually mind her job but when it's stiflingly hot like today the work can be very tiring.

Shanti's daily routine will be similar to that of millions of other children in countries such as Nepal, China and India, where child labour is widely accepted. In Nepal, an estimated three million children aged between five and 14 years old are employed. The children work in quarries, brick kilns, factories, laundries, coal mines and restaurants, to name just a few of the 80 or so areas of industry that break the law. Despite the ratification of 18 international conventions by the Nepalese government to help protect the rights of the child - including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, numerous International Labour Organisation directives and a Children's Act enacted in 1992 - the violations continue.

It's a Dickensian scenario, but the fact is that British consumers may be unwittingly complicit in many of these illegal practices with their appetite for cheap imported goods. And as the gardening season gets underway, it's worth noting that the latest issue of concern surrounding child labour is stone imports to Britain which - according to Customs and Excise figures - have increased 10-fold over the past decade. Escalating consumer demand is thought to be driven by the proliferation of gardening makeover programmes. Shortly before Christmas one of the UK's leading stone importers warned that children as young as five are routinely being used to quarry stone for the booming British patio and landscaping market. Marshalls PLC, which has a factory in Falkirk and is one of Britain's biggest building materials companies, said that large sections of the gardening and construction industry were turning a blind eye to the use of child labour in quarries in order to maximise profits. "We want the industry to face facts and we want consumers to start asking questions. If you want to re-do the patio, then stop and ask yourself where that stone is coming from," said Marshalls' director Chris Harrop.

Nestling at the foot of the Himalayas, Nepal is among the world's poorest and least-developed countries with almost one-third of its population living below the poverty line. According to the United Nations' development index, the nation ranks 138th out of 177 countries. Life expectancy in this landlocked nation is 59.8 years for males and 59.5 for females. Nearly half of the population - 44% - are children, and in Nepalese culture child labour is the norm. Indeed, many children feel a level of responsibility in helping their families financially and are proud to earn an income. Child labour is fundamental to the economy, particularly as Nepal is trying to recover from a draining 10-year civil war that ended in 2006.

About 32,000 children work in Nepal's stone quarries, some as young as five years old. Dawn to dusk can be a typical working day and according to the charity Concern-Nepal, nearly 70% of children work 10-hour days or more. Most are paid by the quantity of gravel crushed into a doko (basket). The figure varies but the children earn on average about 25p per day, about one quarter of an adult wage.

At Concern-Nepal's Kathmandu office the charity's director Bijaya Sainju explains that children's duties include excavating stone, loading trucks for transport and crushing boulders into gravel. "They inhale dust with every breath and repetitive hammering is jarring to bones and muscles. Bonded labour is common so some children don't even get paid as they are employed to pay off family debts," he says. Related medical problems including serious respiratory complaints, backache, visual defects and joint and muscle pain.

Most are not even afforded minimal protective gear and there is a high risk of accidents that can cause permanent injuries or even death. Sainju says that children have been swept away quarrying beside rivers while others have died falling from cliffs.

Out of 600 quarry children interviewed by Concern-Nepal, 94% had witnessed workplace accidents. More than half had injured their hands with hammers, while 18% had hurt themselves falling while carrying loads of stones. First aid treatment, says Sainju, is non-existent, likewise the provision of medical insurance. Not one single child interviewee had received medical attention from a doctor, nor do most seek hospital treatment when injuries occur because of the high costs involved. For Dalit children, the "lowest of the low" in Nepal's caste system and people referred to as the "Untouchables", life is even harder as they suffer harassment from both employers and fellow workers. Many are also sexually abused. "Some 34% of quarry children are Dalits and because of the social stigma many will not report abuse in fear of retribution," Sainju explains.

The following day we meet 15-year-old Parban Rai at a quarry in the Chobar area near Kathmandu.

Parban started working in the quarry when he was seven. A year later he lost his right eye in an accident. He was breaking stones with a rock hammer when a fragment flew up and hit him. It's a common problem for quarry children. "It was very painful and I had to go to hospital for an operation. I lost my sight and now have a glass eye," he says. Parban has no idea how much his treatment cost.

I'm later told by our translator, Jiyam, that the family took out a loan from the employer to cover Parban's medical costs. "This happens a lot. The brokers who run the quarries will lend money to workers when accidents happen. The family then have no choice but to work to pay off the debt. If debts are not cleared they are passed down generations to the children. It is bondage and similar to child slavery," he says.

Similar types of labour abuse were uncovered during an audit by Marshalls. The company, which in 2006 imported two million square metres of decorative paving from India, now buys from only one supplier in Rajasthan, a firm it has forced to ubmit to regular inspections and spend £350,000 on mechanising some areas of production. According to Marshalls, only about one-third of the 200,000 tons of patio stone coming into the UK from India each year was sourced ethically, with the rest often being produced in atrocious conditions. "We were appalled by the child labour problem in Rajasthan. You could see people on site without hard hats, no boots. Suppliers didn't keep employment records.

There were no first aid facilities. It was an utter mess," says Rory Kendrick, the director in charge of Marshalls' stone importing operation. The move to mechanisation has increased costs considerably for the firm but Kendrick says the company can now operate with a clear conscience and he hopes others will follow their example. However, with ethically certified stone typically costing 20% more than the cheapest material available, and with competition between landscapers intense, price often triumphs over ethics.

Another issue is the global warming effect of shipping sandstone to the UK. Research shows that British reconstituted concrete has just half the carbon footprint of imported natural stone from India. India's quarry industry employs up to 100,000 children and supplies almost three-quarters of the imported stone used in British patios and garden features. Indian sandstone from Rajasthan is among the most popular, since it most closely matches the yellow York stone that was traditionally mined in England's Pennines, but has now been all but exhausted through demand.

As in Nepal, international treaties and domestic laws prohibit child labour but are rarely enforced. How do you resolve such an endemic problem? Save the Children says foreign pressure on governments is vital, as does Julie Hawkins, of Ethical Trade, who adds that consumer concern has already helped reduce child labour in some areas. "People should be pests and pose questions to companies. Do you have a code of conduct? Do you check up on suppliers?" she says, urging businesses to adopt the Ethical Trade Initiative Base Code that promotes international standards in respect to labour practices.

However, many British companies say eradicating child labour is not a simple matter. The British Association of Landscaping Industries (Bali) says that up until recently it had an "implied" policy on ethics and sustainability, but this was being reviewed with regards to written policy that was likely to be amended in the very near future.

But Denise Eubanks, head of Bali's press department, says that members have concerns over how far it should go in terms of tackling child labour. "Ethics and sustainability within the industry is an increasingly pressing topic but the instant abolition of such practices could replace one evil with a potentially worse evil where children are forced into prostitution and other criminal activity to help support their families."

Bali, Eubanks adds, must remain mindful of the risks posed to the survival of families working in these quarries if they were to lose custom from the UK and be forced to close because they did not meet standards laid down in this country. "It is because of this that Bali prefers a holistic approach working alongside the appropriate agencies," Eubanks says. Concern-Nepal agrees that it will take years of sustained political will in India and Nepal to make inroads into eradicating child labour. "There is little financial help from the state for these people," Sainju says.

Whether that political energy exists is another matter. In Kathmandu I put the question to Chairman Prachanda, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and the man who led a decade-long insurgency in an attempt to overthrow the monarchy. He blames Nepal's extreme poverty on the king. "Child labour is a direct result of the gross inequalities created in society by the former ruling elite," he says. But then this is a man who recruited thousands of child soldiers for his People's Liberation Army during the civil war, although he denies that any such policy ever existed, despite strong evidence to the contrary, presented last February by Human Rights Watch.

For Concern-Nepal, education is one solution to improving working children's lives. In Nepal, education is not free or compulsory. It's expensive and many parents, often illiterate themselves and unaware of the advantages of learning, do not send their children to school. For the past five years Concern-Nepal has run flexible projects whereby children can continue to work in the quarries and attend school in the afternoon or evenings. "A lot of parents depend on their children's income so we have to have alternative solutions. We pay for the teachers and volunteers. Some children have even stopped working with their parents' consent," Sainju says.

It means that both Parban and Shanti have access to education. Parban, who speaks Nepalese and Hindi, explains that he learned to speak English by watching television and that he hopes to attend college to study history.
"Last year I visited Italy for a world meeting of working children. I met people from Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Paraguay, Chile, and Colombia. Many of them do jobs like mine. But one day I'll be a teacher," he says.

About 2500 quarry children now attend classes and the charity has set a target of 10,000. Meanwhile its campaign for children's rights continues. But Sainju says the issue of child labour is problematic legally because many industries are conducted on an informal basis.

In a recent report he proposed a number of recommendations for the Nepalese government, including enforcing existing child labour laws, introducing new health and safety legislation and generally improving working conditions and pay. "It would be impossible to eradicate child labour overnight and that is not a feasible solution for Nepal. It will take a long time to change the culture but we must ensure children are given the right to education," Sainju says.

Work is finished for the morning so we follow Parban and his fellow quarry worker Sunya to her nearby home nearby and then on to a local school they both attend. Six-year-old Sunya lives with her mother, father and three sisters. She rises at 5am and works at the quarry until 9am. School is from 10am to 4pm, then Sunya returns to the quarry and works until 8pm. "I am very tired when I go to sleep," Sunya says.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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