Although child labour is officially forbidden in India, there are thousands of children working in quarries - blasting granite, marble and sandstone for export - without pay or rights. Germany is the number one importer of Indian stone. That’s why Benjamin Pütter who campaigns for the rights of these child labourers thinks Germany has a particular responsibility to ensure they get out of quarries and go into schools.
A young girl working as labourer in Bhopal, India
Benjamin Pütter has been campaigning for the rights of all the children toiling in India’s quarries for over 20 years. Disguised as a stone trader and armed with a hidden camera, he has documented the living conditions and brought them to the world’s attention.
Three years ago, Pütter set up the organisation XertifiX, which ensures that export quarries are regularly inspected. XertifiX awards a seal of quality, which guarantees that there has been no child labour involved in producing a stone for export.
But Pütter’s campaign is far from over. 12-year-old Sunita has worked in a quarry in Rajasthan since her early childhood. Dressed in rags, she smashes massive rocks from sunrise to sundown, under the burning sun. "These children are juddered by extremely heavy drilling machines that they can barely hold. Stones are fixed to the drill so that it can exert the pressure needed to blast holes,” says Pütter.
Children like Sunita rarely pass the age of 35. They often die when dust gets into their lungs. They develop malformations. And the noise is extremely harmful, says Pütter.
"If I want to talk to the children and ask them how old they are, we have to shout even after they turn off the machines. They are hard of hearing -- almost deaf -- because of the constant noise and they have no protection for their ears.”
Although there are no very reliable figures, there are an estimated 300,000 workers in quarries, which work for export. About 10 percent of them are children. In quarries for local production there are up to 50 percent children.
Illiteracy adding to woes
The quarry workers usually live in straw huts nearby. Jobs are handed down from generation to generation. So are debts. “People are often injured in the quarry. A finger might break or a hand will be blown off. Then they have to go to hospital quickly. There’s no health insurance. Who lends them the money? The quarry owner!,” explains Pütter.
The injured worker then has to pay back the debt with interest. Because the workers are usually illiterate they cannot tell if they are being cheated.
Pütter remembers how he felt when he first discovered this form of bonded labour in India, “I was outraged and said that we needed to have more donations from Germany to build schools. These children do not belong in quarries -- they belong at school.”
Until the authorities, the quarry owners and the Western importers of Indian stones agree on this, however, Pütter and the children’s struggle continues.