Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Price of a Garden Makeover

Stone imports to Britain which have increased 10-fold over the past decade. Escalating consumer demand is thought to be driven by the proliferation of gardening makeover programmes.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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. Similar types of labour abuse were uncovered during an audit by Marshalls. 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.

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.

Report from the Sunday Herald

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