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  Print view: India's ''Hearts of Darkness''

FACTS & COMMENTARY:

India's "Hearts of Darkness"

by Stephen Lendman
Sunday, 11 July 2010

Pretty agates are polished by sweatshop labor
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.
Pretty agates are polished by sweatshop laborHow 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:

"Transnational corporations (TNCs) now roam the world to find the cheapest and most vulnerable workers." They're mostly young women in poor countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Haiti, and many others working up to 14 or more hours a day for sub-poverty wages under horrific conditions.

Because TNCs are unaccountable, a dehumanized global workforce is ruthlessly exploited, denied their civil liberties, a living wage, and the right to work in dignity in healthy safe environments. NLC conducts "popular campaigns based on (its) original research to promote worker rights and pressure companies to end human and labor abuses. (It) views worker rights in the global economy as indivisible and inalienable human rights and (believes) now is the time to secure them for all on the planet."

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

  1. " Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

Article 24 states:

"Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay."

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:

"A sweatshop is a workplace that violates the law and where workers are subject to:

  • extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or long hours;
  • poor working conditions, such as health and safety hazards;
  • arbitrary discipline, such as verbal or physical abuse, or
  • fear and intimidation when they speak out, organize, or attempt to form a union."

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:

  • since record-keeping began in 1988, over 2,000 men, women and children died from silicosis (by breathing silica dust), from polishing gemstones for export to the West; yet operations began in the early 1960s when rural villages first got electricity, making motor driven grinding possible, so in all likelihood, the death count is multiples higher; earlier, silicosis victims were diagnosed to have TB, not thought connected to agate grinding; even today, radiology equipment needed to diagnose and monitor workers with silicosis is lacking;
  • all workers inhale it on the job and experience other occupational hazards, including toxic chemicals exposure, ergonomic dangers, and high noise levels;
  • items made include semi-precious gemstone hearts, beads, pendants, earrings, bracelets, ornaments, rosary beads, and the Star of David;
  • workers are paid 17.5 - 33.5 cents an hour "to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world," exposing themselves to deadly silica dust;
  • they begin as young as 12 or 13 (some younger), paid from 11 to 13.5 cents an hour;
  • 30 - 38% of them die from silicosis;
  • up to 13% of non-working family members and neighbors, living near grinding units, also die from exposure to airborne silica dust;
  • "scores of others are reduced to skin and bones, unable to walk and struggling to breathe;"
  • workers become "bonded labor" by borrowing money from "traders" who supply raw stones, and arrange for manufacture and export; wives are asked to continue their husbands' work if they die; then their children if they're incapacitated;
  • with proper safeguards (including wet grinding and exhaust ventilation), silicosis is up to "100 percent preventable;" without it, grinding gemstones is a death or disability sentence; and
  • the Indian government has done nothing to enforce its labor laws, in deference to its monied interests.
Making Gemstones

Six processes are involved:

  1. Heating, by drying stones in the sun for several days, then "firing" (heating) them in pits in the ground.
  2. Size reduction, by workers called "chippers" (without safety goggles or other protections), using small ox horn hammers to break stones in small pieces.
  3. They're then "tumbled" for 48 - 72 hours in wooden drums, a noisy, dust producing process, escaping into surrounding neighborhoods.
  4. Workers grind and polish stones by pressing them against revolving emery wheels, by far the most dangerous operation, during which workers and others in nearby communities inhale deadly dust.
  5. Aluminum oxide, other chemicals, emery gravel, and water in rotating metal drums give stones luster.
  6. Traders control everything, profiting on death by defining agate grinding as a cottage (not an organized) industry, stripping workers of legal protections under Indian law.

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:

"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, Naran Dhula Bhil one of many victims.

In February 2009, he was hospitalized at Dharmaj, in Gujarat state, coughing, very weak, struggling to walk, and unable to lift anything heavier than five pounds. Since mid-2008, he lost almost half his body weight, dropping from 132 to 70 pounds of skin and bones. On April 14, he died of silicosis, the result of greed, indifference, and consumer ignorance about buying "gemstones of death."

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:

  • cover agate and gemstone industry workers under India's Factories Act;
  • make traders legally accountable for their workers;
  • let them organize and be able to form large cooperatives to negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions, including health and safety protections;
  • mandate India's National Institute of Occupational Health develop safe grinding methods;
  • provide medical care, compensation and family stipends for silicosis victims; and
  • make traders pay for their decades of profiting from death.

Add another - inform consumers about the real gemstones cost, the thousands who died painfully producing them, for a dollar or so a day.


Stephen Lendman

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at lendmanstephen@sbcglobal.net. His blog is sjlendman.blogspot.com.

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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This story was published on July 11, 2010.
 



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