Beltrami & the fight against child labour in India
Bram Callewier (Beltrami B Magazine, Dec 1, 2014)
You have undoubtedly already seen images of sweatshops in India where young girls are forced to work in the textile sector. A phenomenon in India (and other developing countries) that is not only limited to girls but also extends to boys in other sectors. In our showroom customers ask me sometimes if that’s also the case with natural stone from India. A tough question that unfortunately has an equally tough answer: yes, it is possible that the well-known Kandla setts are cut by children aged 10-15 years. Obviously this leads to indignation among customers! Nobody in Europe would indeed like to see that the products they buy are made by children. And if a company like Beltrami is aware of this, why is this not prohibited or, even better, why don’t they simply stop buying the product?
However the reality on the ground is more complex than appears at first sight. Even after more than five years of engagement with the problem, I still do not dare to say that even at this day we have developed a ready-made solution. The problem is much deeper, as is almost always the case in the prevention of child labour. The cutting of setts (or “cobbles” as referred to in India) is done in a very 'traditional' way in which whole families are gathering debris in quarries in the desired colour (Grey/Ochre) and cutting them to size. They sell them to middlemen who are collecting the cobbles from door to door to send them then by container vessel to Europe.
Fortunately, we nowadays have found the right partner. Since 2013 we actively cooperate with a local NGO, Manjari, who is supported by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) from Utrecht and the MV Foundation from Hyderabad in India. The project aims to decrease the influx of new child labourers and to send working children back to school. It is important that they try to reorganise the existing imperfect system of public schools, instead of building new ones. Much less reliable organisations are all too eager to propose this as a quick fix. We started on a very small scale with a focus on four villages in Parana-Budhpura where the situation is worst. Everyone's involvement is expected, not just only of parents but also of village chiefs (panchayat), local authorities, suppliers and of course ourselves. Without support from bottom to top the project will not succeed. Local 'education councils' and parent committees are newly formed and people are urged to send their children to school instead of to work.
One year has passed now, and after my last visit in early September 2014 I can say that we are indeed making progress. In the meantime, four government schools that were once almost abandoned are again in use and the necessary teachers are available daily. An application to the government for two additional schools to be re-activated is ongoing. While in August 2013, only 50% of the children went to school in these villages, this figure is currently at 66%. The group of older children (12-15 years old) appears to be the most difficult. They have already developed a spending pattern, often on wrong things such as alcohol and tobacco, and it is very difficult to convince them of the surplus value of an education for their future. However Manjari persists in making efforts to convince that group and their parents of the importance of this.
The NGO also tries to address other causes of child labour by urging the government, among other things, to fulfil their duty to provide health care in this region. This is organised in the form of a health camp and is completely free of costs. This decreases the costs families have to spend on health care and limits the chances of abuse by expensive local quacks. Widows are equally informed that they are entitled to a widower's pension from the government. Already 31 women exercised their right to this pension through Manjari and hence, it is less likely that they will put their children at work. For the coming year Manjari hopes to be assigned more teachers to organise more classes according to age. They also want to provide everyone with a bank account, especially now that the new prime minister Narendra Modi seems to throw his weight behind this. It may seem futile for us but most people in these remote areas have no identity papers and consequently cannot apply for a bank account. Without a bank account, there is no real possibility to save money or to obtain a health or any other insurance.
Perhaps these small actions are all drops in the ocean, but it has to start somewhere. I feel personally very involved in this project because our responsibility is so large. Beltrami is one of the largest importers of Kandla setts in Belgium and France. As a socially conscious entrepreneur, I think it speaks for itself that we take our responsibility here. Or to say it with the legendary words of Mahatma Gandhi: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world".