Stone Quarry Workers
The era of modernization is built on foundations of infrastructural activities like roads, multi-story buildings, towers, ports, huge over-bridges and railway tracks, for which STONE is the basically essential material. As investments in infrastructural development in India increases, the need for stone and stone products is also rapidly increasing.
In olden days Boyar or Odder caste communities engaged solely in stone quarrying in Tamil Nadu. However, gradually, due to the exponential increase in the need for stone products, many other castes of people are also involved in stone quarrying and production of stone products. What links them all together is their poverty and abysmal working conditions, illiteracy and ill health, economic and social insecurity, violation of human rights and non-application of workers’ legal provisions by concerned authorities.
- Stone quarry workers are very hard working manual labourers.
- Most of them live in small huts huddled around stone quarry sites.
- Since there is no guarantee of regular employment, many of them keep migrating to different stone quarry sites in search of job opportunities.
- Due to misery, many of them pledge themselves as bonded labourers to the quarry owners. In many instances even their women and children are pledged along with them.
- No political parties, trade unions or even civil society groups has so far come up to address their poor working conditions and pressing socio-economic needs, including access to education for the children.
- The scheme benefits announced by governments towards their welfare are yet to reach them.
- Since they live around quarries, the stone quarry workers are isolated and marginalized from the mainstream society.
Stone quarry workers blast rocks in quarries and break the stones into pieces. They also turn out stone products by breaking stone into various sizes and chiseling them into various shapes. Construction needs and market demands keep them hurried, but only with their hard manual labour, using explosives and hard tools.
There are 1.5 million such quarry workers are rendering their manual labour in over 15,000 stone quarries in 26 districts of Tamil Nadu at present. Another 1.5 million quarry workers of Tamil Nadu are migrants engaged in stone quarrying in the neighboring states of Kerala, Andhra and Karnataka. Most of them have ended up as bonded laborers/ families.
The quarry workers work from dawn to dusk in scorching sun and inclement weather. They shed not only their sweat but also their blood due to exploded stones and splinters hitting their bodies. Accidents are very common in stone quarries due to blasts by use of explosives. But, the accident victims are not given proper treatment or compensation.
The aggravating labour conditions of stone quarry workers can be gauged from the following factors:
- There is no fixation of time or wages for work. Hence, quarry workers are pressurized to work overtime by the quarry owners and still receive only low wages.
- There is no rest shed for the workers who work under the scorching sun.
- Though stone-quarrying is hazardous work, there are no medical facilities arranged near the quarries, and not even a First Aid Box is maintained.
- No toilet facilities are made available in the quarry sites. Women workers have to seek privacy elsewhere to relieve them.
- Registers are not maintained for recording attendance, wages, accidents, etc.
- The workers themselves have to purchase the tools and explosives for quarry work. The quarry owners do not provide these essential equipments and requirements.
- Safety equipment like helmets, masks, gloves and footwear are not provided to any workers.
- Drinking water and canteen facilities are not available on sites.
- Social security like provident fund, gratuity, E.S.I, bonus, pension and housing allowance are not at all arranged for the quarry workers.
- Even though the Indian Mines Act 1952 mandates employers to provide all the above-mentioned safety measures to quarry workers, absence of central and state Labour Department officials to monitor this industry has left the quarry workers helpless.
- There is a strong nexus between the quarry owners, government officials and state politicians, which keeps quarry workers exploited as low/daily wage labourers.
Most of the stone quarry workers end as bonded labourers. The workers get advance money from the owners not only to meet household expenses, but also to purchase tools and explosives for work. Due to very low wages they are not able to repay the advance. Further, whenever family needs arise, they avail monetary advances again and again. Gradually this advance accumulation land the workers in huge debt trap that forces them into bondedness.
Because of this bondedness over debts, the workers are not able to demand better wages, because whoever asks for wage raise are threatened, beaten up and their family members are hauled into various harassments. Therefore, the workers keep a low profile, bowing to all the conditions and rules of the owners, including the status of slavery.
The stone quarry workers often migrate to different places in search of job opportunities due to lack of guaranteed employment and reasonable wages. Migration is also induced by the thought of escaping from very oppressive or exploitative owners. In effect, most of the quarry workers lead their lives as semi- nomads.
Due to continuous migration, illiteracy and ignorance, the workers do not prefer to send their children to schools. Even those workers who can send their children to schools find it difficult to provide for their basic educational needs. Their living environment is also not suited to the education of children. Therefore, even the school-going children drop out from school. The drop-out rate is on the rise among the children of stone quarry workers. Neither the government nor any civil society organization has thought of alternatives to retain these children in schools. The poverty in the family further induces the parents to send their children for work.
Marriages for the children in the families of quarry workers are conducted when they attain the age of 14-18 years. Once a boy and a girl form a separate family, they are eligible for an advance amount of money from a quarry owner.