Top UK retailers pull granite worktops from shops over Indian slavery fears

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Two leading British retailers have pulled a range of luxury granite worktops from sale after rights groups found that many of the laborers mining the rock in southern Indian quarries are victims of modern slavery.

John Lewis, Britain’s biggest department store group, said it was also investigating granite sources in its supply chains, following a recent report on workers’ rights in quarries in three Indian states by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN).

More than half of laborers mining granite in these states for tiles, fireplaces and kitchen counters around the world are working in dangerous conditions to repay huge loans - leaving them trapped in a cycle of debt bondage - according to the ICN.

India is the world’s top granite producer - accounting for around half of global raw stone exports - and the premium varieties, such as the star galaxy granite pulled from sale by John Lewis, sell online for hundreds of pounds per square meter.

John Lewis said it does not source granite directly, but works with one Britain-based importer of the rock.

“Our supplier has assured us that among other measures, regular, unscheduled visits to suppliers take place as part of due diligence programs,” the retailer said in a statement after the shift by the retailers was first reported by the Observer newspaper on Sunday.

The ICN said John Lewis could set a positive example for other retailers if its response went beyond just withdrawing its worktops, and included talking with suppliers and drawing up an action plan to ensure its supply chains were slavery-free.

“It is great to see that John Lewis is concerned, and if major companies take such action, we can hope to see the start of a pathway of improvement for laborers,” ICN’s director Gerard Oonk told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The granite worktops were also being withdrawn from British retailer Habitat, which said it was investigating the matter.

“All our suppliers have to meet our high welfare standards and we won’t hesitate to take appropriate action if any supplier is found to be in breach of these,” a Habitat spokesman said.

Anti-Slavery International’s director Aidan McQuade said businesses should use their influence to engage governments to clamp down on slavery in at-risk industries worldwide.

“It is a pity that it seems to require a press report before businesses take the issue of slavery seriously,” he added.

More than 30 natural stone firms from the United Kingdom, European Union, United States, Australia and Canada source granite from the 22 Indian quarries investigated by the ICN.

About 46 million people are estimated to be enslaved worldwide, with more than 18 million living in India, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.