Child Slave Labor in India's Diamond Industry
by Meghan Hoppe
The extensive reality of child labor in India is well recognized, despite the existence of provisions in the Indian Constitution and in laws prohibiting child labor. Nonetheless, aside from these good intentions, child labor is thriving, and makes a major contribution to India's Gross Domestic Product. Estimates of the numbers of working children in India vary between 20 million and up to100 million. "The nature of child labor is changing, with increasing numbers of children in urban areas working. There is clear evidence that, as industries such as the gemstone and diamond industry have grown, they have acted as a magnet for poor rural families to move into cities, and often whole families end up working, particularly where schooling is inadequate (ILO)." India is the world's biggest diamond and gemstone cutting center and is now alongside agriculture as the country's biggest export earner. "The gem and jewelry trade consists of importing, polishing and cutting (or otherwise treating) and then exporting diamonds, gold jewelry, colored gemstones, pearls, non gold jewelry, synthetic stones and fashion jewelry. Because of their greater individual value, diamonds contribute between 85 - 88% of the total export value of gems and jewelry (ILO)." Part of the explosive growth in this industry can be directly accredited to the exploitation of cheap labor, such as child labor. Many families are forced to supplement their income by sending their children to work instead of school. Evidence from the gem processing industry in India has shown that providing several hours of education per day to working children had some positive effects, but is no substitute for full-time education. Working children, especially girls who have extra household work at home, are simply too tired to get the best out of the hours of schooling provided.
Cut diamonds have been India's major export for more than a decade. Because of its low wages, India has been a powerhouse driving the profits of the diamond industry sky high. Child labor is illegal in India but young eyes are much prized in the diamond trade. India gets all the really small diamonds to cut and these diamonds and gems demand the keenest of eyes. "At one factory I asked for their smallest cut diamonds. They showed me two that were no more than specks of light. They were 'half- pointers'. There are 100 points to a carat. A carat is one fifth of a gram. These diamonds therefore weighted one thousandth of a gram. Each of them had been cut with about 50 sides. They were so light that I had to turn off the fan to insure there was not the slightest of breezes before taking them out to examine them (Roberts)." Less expensive diamonds and gems are imported into India as rough stones, which are cut or polished by children. Gem polishing is also a big industry that uses child slave labor to gain profits.
In 1993, India exported more than $1 billion worth of gems, which is the major export by value from India to the United States. "The majority of these exports are diamonds, which are processed and polished in Surat, Gujarat, and emeralds that are polished in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Some sources allege that anywhere between 6,000 and 100,000 children are working in the diamond industry, cutting and polishing diamond chips. These figures are uncorroborated (DOL)." The Operations Research Group in its 1993 report singled out the diamond-cutting industry in Surat, Gujarat, of special alarm for child labor. It found children, generally boys between 12 and 13 years old, polishing diamonds for a standard of seven to nine hours a day in unhealthy conditions. This study also found major health and safety troubles, including eyestrain, headaches, leg and shoulder pain, malaria, discoloration of hair, rotten teeth, and dysentery. "Wage rates were similar to adults; children, who received wages based on the number of diamonds they polished, reported a monthly income of 930 rupees (approximately $30) (DOL)." The Indian government, in its National Plan of Action, has besieged the diamond polishing industry in Surat as one of nine industries in which it will extend a Child Labor project.
In addition to diamonds, children also polish emeralds, sapphires, rubies, lapis lazuli, turquoise, corals, garnets, amethysts, and topaz. Approximations of child workers in the gem industry in Jaipur range from 7,000 to 13,000. " A 1991 study by the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur provides extensive documentation of child labor in the gem industry of Jaipur. For example, the study cites a 12-year-old girl using a drilling machine, children stringing gems, a 14 year-old girl cutting tiger stone, turquoise, amethysts and garnet, and a 9 year-old boy polishing stones (DOL)."
There are two categories of children working in the gemindustry in Jaipur:
1) Children from 6 to 10 years old belonging to families of manual laborers and poorly paid people. These children work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and are completely illiterate;
2) Children from 10 to 14 years old belonging to families with a fairly steady income. These children go to government schools and work about four hours a day after school.
According to a 1991 study, children are concerned in large numbers of the making of the "ghats"(rough cut stones), faceting and polishing of semi-precious stones. In the precious stone industries, children use oxides in the ending stages of gem polishing. In this final polishing with oxides, the entire labor force consists of children below fourteen. It was found that although children in the gem polishing industry are engaged as "apprentices," they are in fact a resource of cheap labor. The education process takes five to seven years; during the first two years children obtain little or no compensation. Children work for 10 hours a day and after the two years, the child worker is paid 50 rupees per month (approximately $1.70).
Workplace conditions are commonly bad. They are congested, poorly lit and ventilated, and over half of the industry's workforce suffers from work-related ailments such as kidney dysfunction, lung disease, stomach problems, wheezing, pains in their joints and eyesores. These are all ailments that could be prevented if measures were taken to control industrial health hazards. Doctors in the area revealed that more than 30 percent of the children get tuberculosis, seemingly due to unhygienic conditions, overcrowding, and malnutrition. Children complain of body ache and finger tips scraped by the polishing discs. The most frequent complaints are eyestrain and allergic dermatitis because of regular use of dirty water.