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Stone Stories: „Not all changes can be attained overnight“

Update: (February 2011) Apple Inc, world-player on the computer market, has been publishing a Supplier Responsibility Report since 2007 as a reaction to criticism of working conditions of Apple’s Asian suppliers. The current report sites child labour (personnel under the age of 16)  in 10 companies in China.

(February 2011) It’s no challenge to check the technical safety of an automobile: every couple of years the car is examined – motor, brakes, as well as the chassis – after which a time-limited seal of approval gives the vehicle green light until the next exam. Much more complicated, though, when the seal of approval pertains to complex labour and ecological parameter in the production line particularly if the product in question has undergone a number of processes before completion. Take, for example, a polished grave stone: where to turn to check whether certain standards are met – in the quarry, the saw mill, the polishing and perhaps even transportation over rural roadways?

The Dutch Working Group on Sustainable Natural Stone (WerkGroep Duurzame Natuursteen, WGDN) has taken on the theme and aims to ensure that Asian suppliers provide humane working conditions and acceptable standards of sustainability.

Presently the organization has agreed a cooperation with a several European purchasing firms for projects in India and China. It is not the aim to impose a certification process on producers. In fact WGDN hopes to change the production conditions from the inside in order to bring about long-term improvements.

The first step is a „quick audit“ according to Frans Papma, leading member of the organization. In cooperation with purchasers, WGDN visits producers in both countries. „The audited firm gains an immediate idea where it stands in respect to our code of conduct“, according to Papma.

For some suppliers, especially small firms, confrontation with labour standards or sustainability is a first.

Motto of the auditors is to tread quietly and carefully – as can be gathered between the lines of last year’s WGDN China-Reports. E.g. the reports state „that there are many health and safety issues“. Also some producers expect overtime or 7 day-work-weeks from employees without extra remuneration. Many employees work without a written contract. This is against written law but continues to be common practice.

At the same time WGDN notes that especially farmers take advantage of supplementary sources of income offered. They have no interest in written contracts as they wish to remain free to come as their farm chores allow. The same is true for migrant labourers who can’t take with them profit from pension entitlements.

Incidentally there were no signs of child labour in any of the enterprises examined.

It was determined that remuneration in the stone industry is generally above average, reflecting the heavy physical demand. One solution to streamline good wages and unacceptable conditions would be modern technical equipment which could provide an incentive for employees to work regular hours.

A first step toward change according to the WGDN-Concept would be to employ a Social Compliance Officer whose job would be to point out short-comings and maintain surveillance processes.

In India such officers have already been trained in 6 companies. In China the first training is scheduled to begin on the 24th and 25th of February this year – for 12 candidates from 10 companies.

The compliance officers should be members of the workforce, saving transportation costs and ensuring that the candidates are aware of local conditions. True, conflict situations with the boss are almost unavoidable.

„We learned from India that we must guide and accompany the Social Compliance Officers“, according to Frans Papma, „left to their own resources, not much happens.“ One measure is to hold regular meetings where the designated officers can exchange ideas and experience. An accompanying handbook provides officers with guidelines and elaborates the process for CEO’s in purchasing firms.

And finally: only enterprises which meet a certain standard right from the start, are eligible to participate in the certification process. Only then will the circle of participants open to external evaluation and finally the sought seal of approval.

„Not all changes can be attained overnight“, as stated soberly in the report, which can be viewed on the WGDN-Website.

WGDN cooperates closely with other organizations in Great Britain and Scandinavia and is in contact with counterparts from Germany where the Government Agency for Foreign Development (GIZ) is striving to harmonize European activities.

Working Group on Sustainable Natural Stone (WerkGroep Duurzame Natuursteen, WGDN)

Frans Papma (Mail)

WGDN-Code of Conduct