The import of granite and other natural stone products into the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and other European countries is increasing. Granite is much used for public infrastructural projects, like pavement. The production of granite and other types of natural stone is still far from sustainable, concludes the report ‘Improving working conditions at Chinese Natural Stone Companies’ that was just now published by SwedWatch and SOMO.

Research took place in quarries and stone processing facilities in Fujian and Shandong provinces. While issues differ per region, the overall research findings are relevant for the bulk of the trade practices of European buyers. In terms of occupational health and safety, the quarrying and processing of natural stone is a high risk business. Accidents and occupational diseases such as silicosis are common. Workers have to pay for gloves, dust masks and other protective gear. Most employers fail to provide written contracts. Training or information on health issues is lacking. Interviewed workers insist on higher payment and health insurance.

A number of European buyers as well as their Chinese suppliers provided support and input for the research, acknowledging that improvement is urgently needed. In the Netherlands, natural stone companies, business associations and civil society organisations are united in the Working Group on Sustainable Natural Stone, a multi stakeholder initiative. The objective of the Working Group is to support companies in improving labour and environmental conditions throughout their product chains. The report ‘Improving working conditions at Chinese Natural Stone Companies’ provides concrete recommendations to this end.

At the other end of the product chain, public authorities purchasing natural stone products for public space projects, need to assume their responsibilities too. In the Netherlands, overall public procurement will need to be in accordance with sustainability criteria by 2010. These criteria are currently being developed. Several Swedish cities have included social criteria into their public procurement policies. In order to improve conditions in the natural stone industry in China, and in other stone producing developing countries, it is critical that public authorities use appropriate sustainability criteria.

The Chinese natural stone industry is growing. A conservative estimate speaks of 5,000 quarries and 10,000 stone processing facilities. The overall industry provides employment to 2, maybe even 3 million workers. About 20% of the Chinese exported natural stone is destined for Europe. On top of the list figure finished granite products.

The research was carried out in October 2007 by SwedWatch and the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), in collaboration with Chinese organisations. The India Committee of the Netherlands (a non-governmental organisation) has commissioned this research in its capacity of co-ordinator of the Working Group on Sustainable Natural Stone.