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FACTS & COMMENTARY:
India's "Hearts of Darkness"
Sunday, 11 July 2010
Grinding wheels like this are used by women and children to polish minerals for pennies an hour. As little as seven microns of silica dust can cause silicosis, dramatically shortening their lives.
How could something as beautiful as a gemstone cause so much suffering and death, without a word or explanation in America where most of them go? Yet gemstone grinding in India involves exploitation, misery, deprivation, disability or a painful death for thousands of the country's poor.
The National Labor Committee's (NLC) puts "a human face on the global economy," saying in its mission statement that:
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Article 24 states:
Definition of a Sweatshop
This writer's earlier article defined them, a term that's been around since the 19th century. Definitions vary but essentially refer to workplaces where employees work for poor pay, few or no benefits, in unsafe, unfavorable, harsh, and/or hazardous environments, are treated inhumanely by employers, and are prevented from organizing for redress.
The term itself refers to the technique of "sweating" the maximum profit from each worker, a practice that thrived in the late 19th century.
Webster calls them "A shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages under unhealthy conditions."
According to the group Sweatshop Watch:
According to the US Department of Labor, a sweatshop is a place of employment that violates two or more federal or state labor laws governing wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers' compensation or industry regulation.
It's mainly a women's rights issue as 90% of the workforce is female, aged 15 - 25, but men and children are also affected, besides the enormous environmental toll through air pollution, ozone layer depletion, acid rain, ocean and fresh water contamination, and an overtaxed ecosystem producing unhealthy, unsafe living conditions globally.
Horrific Working Conditions in India
In February, NLC published a report titled, "Hearts of Darkness," saying "Workers in India, including children, will die young grinding gemstones for Valentine's Day," explaining that:
Six processes are involved:
No labor laws in India protect them - no minimum wage, compensation for injuries, healthcare, pensions or retirement benefits, nothing. India's Factories Act excludes them, the principal law covering health, safety, welfare, minimum wage, and other worker rights, if enforced.
Indian Agate - "An Industry of Death"
The Vadodara People's Training and Research Centre (specializing in occupational health and safety standards) estimates well over 2,000 grinder deaths since 1988, processing gemstones in India's two centers - Khambhat in Gujarat state and Jaipur in Rajastan state, the latter by far the biggest.
NLC researched Khambhat, employing an estimated 15,000 - 20,000 workers in hundreds of small grinding units. Jaipur has many more.
"Valentine's Day Massacre"
In the report's preface, NLC's executive director, Charles Kernaghan, headlined it, asking:
Bhil was 11 when he began working as a grinder, shaper, and polisher, making gemstones into hearts, pendants, rings, beads, and various type ornaments.
For a day's work, he produced 100 - 150 for 15.5 cents an hour, $1.08 daily, or less than a penny for each stone produced, each giving off silica dust that killed him. By age 20, he knew it, stayed on the job, borrowed money to buy gemstones, and became "bonded," meaning he couldn't quit until out of debt, what few grinders ever do.
Bihl said his shop employed 35. Only four or five are left, the others sick or dead. "So many have died," he said, and when he expired "he did not have a single penny to his name," as true for most others.
Haresh Mafatbhai Parmar was another grinder turned to skin and bones by February 2009. He couldn't walk and struggled to breathe even lying down motionless. He began at age 13 or 14, less than 20 years later he was sick and dying, told he had tuberculosis. His mother and father both died seven years earlier, victims of gemstone grinding.
On June 11, Parmar died, not of TB, of silicosis after silica dust destroyed his lungs.
Rama Lallubhai Vaghela began at age 12 or 13, earning $1.19 a day, for 20 years until he died. At the end, he was ill, eyes bloodshot, too weak to work, always short of breath, could barely walk, and was thin as a rail. By the time symptoms emerged, it was too late. Silicosis is incurable.
"Everyone knows about the dangers," he said, "but we're helpless. There are no other jobs." He was an artist, creating beautiful gems and images for his parents' home. He was also one of the first to rally for worker rights, including exhaust systems to control the dust. Before he died, he said his trader never once stopped by to see how he was doing. He only wanted his output.
In another village, children as young as 10 grind gemstones, one 10-year old looking more like 8, meaning he started years earlier and already showed the effects.
Watching him and others grind, dust flew everywhere, and fell on his hair, eyebrows, ears, nose, hands, arms and clothing. He earned 13.5 cents an hour for four hours daily, or 54 cents.
Another very young boy and girl had swollen, cracked hands and calloused finger tips. The grinding wheel wobbles as it spins. To shape items, workers use their fingers to press them against the wheel, creating friction, heat, sparks, and constant vibration, taking its toll on hands, fingers, and lungs.
Their father worked 15 feet away, knowing the risks. "But what can I do," he said. "We are landless peasants with no money." He was trapped in poverty and misery with no way out - either work or starve, even if it kills him and his children.
Throughout the shops visited, researchers heard stories of illness, disability or death, about themselves, their families and others they knew, an epidemic of poverty-induced misery.
An old man said his son died in 2006 after being sick for four or five years. Another man said 15 in his village succumbed after years of grinding, leaving widows and children behind, and others are declining fast. One man worried what would happen to his wife and children "when I die." Their turn comes next.
In 2009, in Khambhat, 29 gemstone grinders died, the report listing them by name, age, date and cause of death. Most were in their 40s, victimized for a dollar or so a day, less than a penny per item produced.
Shakapur village has about 200 grinders, yet up to two-thirds of its 7,000 population is exposed to silica dust. As many as 900 will die from exposure, besides the high percent of workers.
Merchants of Death
Throughout the West, gemstones are widely distributed, in over 600 US bead stores alone, much supplied from India, consumers unaware of the human toll for their trinkets.
Also, more than a dozen US and Canadian bead societies hold monthly meetings, and 27 websites sell or supply product information.
Novica, in association with National Geographic, sells "Treasures of the world, living treasures" in the form of gemstone earrings, bracelets, necklaces, rings and pendants, made from Indian agate, onyx, amethyst and lapis - retailing at $57.95 for heart-shaped earrings, certified by The Global Compact and Green America "Approved for people and planet," featuring the artistry of Wayan Rendah, saying "It gives me great pleasure when one of my statues inspires somebody," mindless that gemstones kill.
For Valentine's Day, the Phoenix Orion Gift Emporium sells Indian heart-shaped stones, its Chevron Amethyst one for $39.95, "beautifully hand cut and polished....foster(ing) integration of the emotions, enhancing creativity....reinforc(ing) decisiveness and enhanc(ing) leadership qualities (and also a) well-known healing stone," by killing its maker.
Star of David pendants come from Indian agate as do Anglican and Catholic rosaries, the former selling for $34.95, its maker earning pennies.
The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art sells deco marcasite and black agate drop earrings for $150, capped onyx necklaces for $175, and amethyst stone necklaces for $110 - no country of origin listed.
The Rainforest Site (shop.theRainForest.com) sells Indian agate necklaces for $29.95.
Indian-made agate and other semi-precious gemstones are everywhere, readers likely having some in their homes, unaware how much misery and death produced them.
India's Bureau of Mines reported 686 tons of agate exported from 1998 - 2002, the latest figures available. Most went to America, then Germany, Italy, Thailand, and Britain.
A "Dusty Death"
As little as seven microns of silica dust can cause silicosis, by inducing fibrosis, scarring lungs with non-functional fibrous tissue, eventually becoming pulmonary massive fibrosis (PMF, characterized by large conglomerate masses of dense fibrosis) after enough exposure.
At this stage, grinders become weak, can't walk, suffer extreme weight loss, struggle to breathe, experience chest pain, followed by a slow, painful death.
People's Training and Research Centre (PTRC) and Agate Worker Demands
PTRC's director, Jagdish Patel, lists them:
Add another - inform consumers about the real gemstones cost, the thousands who died painfully producing them, for a dollar or so a day.
Listen to Lendman's cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.
Mr. Lendman's stories are republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.This story was published on July 11, 2010.
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