South India’s granite stone workers are vulnerable to debt bondage due to burden of huge advances

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Excerpts from “The Dark Sites of Granite: Modern slavery, child labour and unsafe work in Indian granite quarries”, by Glocal Research (Hyderabad), India Committee of the Netherlands (Utrecht) and Stop Child Labour (The Hague):

India is one of the top five producers of natural stone worldwide. Around 10% of the natural stone traded on the world market is sourced from India. Half of the total world exports of granite comes from India, making India by far the largest global exporter of granite. The majority of granite produced in India is exported, amongst other countries to China, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

The data on employment and working conditions in granite quarries were gathered through a field survey among workers of 22 sample quarries. The field research was conducted between June and November 2016. Each sample quarry was visited twice for data collection because granite production varies among seasons (during rainy season production comes down as quarries fill with water). Of the 22 quarries, 8 are located in Andhra Pradesh, 8 in Telangana and the remaining 6 in Karnataka.

Out of the 172 interviewed workers, 61% (105) are migrant labourers and the remaining 39% are local workers. Migrant workers are preferred over local workers as they are considered to be more obedient, work longer hours and do not switch employers frequently. Migrants are able to work flexible and longer hours as they often have fewer social or familial commitments. They are less likely to strike and they are often paid lower wages.

stone5Most of the workers engaged in stone quarry work are from Other Backward Class (OBCs), particularly from one community called Vaddera. Stone cutting and processing is a traditional occupation for this community. The caste composition of workers is 43% (74) Other Backward Class (OBCs), 27% (46) Dalitsiii, officially called Scheduled Castes (SCs), and 11% Scheduled Tribes (STs); the remaining 19% are from other (upper) castes. The educational background of workers shows that 31% (53) of the workers are illiterate and 36% (62) completed only primary schooling.

Out of the 172 workers interviewed 34 are women (20%) and 138 men (80%). While men are exclusively employed in key operations like drilling, cutting and shaping the stones, women are mainly employed in the processing of waste stone.

Thirteen child labourers below 18 years are identified in 7 out of 22 researched quarries. Children below 14 years account for nearly 3% of the workforce in waste stone processing and 5% of the workforce is between 15 to 18 years old. With 8% child labour engaged in this activity, the magnitude of child labour in the processing of waste stone has not changed.

More than 70% of the workforce in granite quarries is casual labourers employed on a daily wage or piece rate basis. For their requirement of labour, particularly migrants, quarry owners mainly depend on middlemen or agents. The recruitment of labour through third party labour contractors or agents (locally called ‘mastries’) has increased substantially in recent years. After 2005, there was a sudden rise in the demand for granite and companies increased their production. Due to scarcity of skilled local labour, companies became more dependent on migrant labour, recruited by third party labour contractors.

A labour contractor supplying labour shared that: “One decade ago there were only 25-30 labour contractors in Chimakurthi village, but now this number increased to 70-80. For recruitment of migrant labour they [granite companies] prefer us. They can save a lot of money if they recruit the labour through us, because we need to provide accommodation and food to the migrant workers. If companies have to provide accommodation and food facilities it would cost them more. Also, managing labour is a big headache. In order to avoid these things companies prefer hiring labour through us.”

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In almost all the quarries studied in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh migrant workers, who account for more than 70% of the workforce, are employed through labour contractors, without formal employment contracts. The quarry management makes agreements with the labour contractors for the supply of labour. Each middleman supplies a workforce ranging from 20 to 100 workers. Labour contractors offer advance payments in accordance with the size of families and the number of workers a family can offer, encouraging struggling families to join the quarry work. Additionally, they also offer small loans to some families in need. The families use these loans for a variety of purposes: meeting domestic expenses, dowry or weddings, festivals, cultural rituals or coping with emergencies like illness, accidents or death.

On these loans the labour contractors charge interest ranging from 24% to 36% per year. No interest is charged on the wage advances. Wage advances paid to workers vary between INR 5000 to INR 15000  in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana; in Karnataka it varies between INR 5000 to INR 20000 per worker in 2016.

This is equivalent to a wage of one to three months for the workers. Once the workers get an advance, they repay the amount through installments deducted from their wages every month. New advances are taken when the workers are in need. The actual amount deducted from the wage is determined through a mutual agreement between the worker and the middleman. The advances make the workers vulnerable to debt bondage, as workers can be restricted in their freedom to change employer by the heavy burden of huge advances that need to be repaid.

The wage advances and loans are primarily used as means to bind the workers. “There is a lot of competition among labour contractors to get the workers. Without advances it is difficult for us to mobilise and retain the workers with us. If we do not pay advances there is no guarantee that they will stay with us”, said a labour contractor who supplies labour to major quarries in Chimakurthi, including quarries included in the sample.

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Around 45% of the interviewed workers in the sample quarries is recruited through paying wage advances (without interest rates) and nearly 25% of the workers is recruited by paying loans, which carry interest rates of 24% to 36% per year. In Telangana about 42% of the local workers and 58% of the migrant workers interviewed reported that they owe large sums of money (INR 10000  to INR 20000) to the quarry owners or contractors and they therefore have been working with the same quarry for more than two years. If workers want to leave the employer they must first clear the amount they owe to the employer.

Depending upon the activity, daily wage workers are paid between INR 300 to INR 350 in Andhra Pradesh, INR 275 to INR 325  in Telangana and INR 250 to INR 320 in Karnataka. If the work is entrusted on a piece-rate basis the amount is paid on per unit basis, often per feet. According to the interviewed workers they earn more money per day (INR 50 to INR 75 extra) when working on piece-rate basis compared to a daily wage arrangement. As wage rates are low, workers hardly meet their basic requirements. In case of unexpected expenses like health expenses, festivals, burials etc. workers are often taking loans to be able to pay for this.

Occupational health and safety is a serious issue of concern in stone quarrying. More than 80% of the workers interviewed as well as stakeholders the researchers talked to, were of the opinion that health and safety is the most severe issue in granite quarrying and processing. Quarry workers face many occupational hazards like explosions, large moving stones, silica and other dust and backbreaking labour. In 25% of the sample quarries, mostly small quarries located in Karnataka and Telangana, workers were unsure if any protective equipment was available at the worksite.

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Nearly 62% of the workers interviewed in sample quarries reported that they are not provided any safety equipment by their quarry management, except during labour department inspections. Of the remaining 38% who reported that they have received safety shoes and helmets from their employers, only 24% reported that they have been using them regularly.

*Click HERE to download full report

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