February, 11 2010 |  Download PDF |  Share

Hearts of Darkness

Workers in India, including children, will die young grinding gemstones for Valentine’s Day



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Executive Summary

  • More than 2,000 men, women and children in India have died miserable deaths due to silicosis, while polishing gemstones for export to the U.S. and Europe.
  • Agate and other semi-precious gemstone hearts, beads pendants, earrings, bracelets, ornaments—and even rosary beads and the Star of David are made in India.
  • Workers are paid just 17 ½ to 33 ½ cents an hour to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, squatting in front of primitive grinding wheels, using their fingers to press agate and other semi-precious stones against the wheels to shape them. In the process they are covered with silica dust.
  • Many workers start when they are 12 or 13 years old. The National Labor Committee met an eight-year-old boy who was covered with silica dust as he worked shaping agate beads.
  • The child workers are paid 11 to 13 ½ cents an hour.
  • Thirty percent of all gemstone grinders will die of silicosis.
  • Six to ten percent of non-working family members and neighbors will also die of silicosis due to exposure to the airborne silica dust.
  • Scores of others are reduced to skin and bones, unable to walk and struggling to breathe.
  • When poor workers borrow money from their “trader”—who supplies the raw stones, organizes the manufacture and export of gemstones—they become “bonded labor.” If the worker dies, his wife is asked to take over the grinding. If she dies, her children will be asked to do so.
  • Silicosis is 100 percent preventable. But without proper occupational safeguards, with continued exposure, silicosis becomes 100 percent fatal.
  • It does not have to be this way. With simple technology—a wet grinding process in combination with exhaust ventilation systems can drastically reduce exposure to silica dust.
  • The government of India has also failed to enforce every single one of its labor laws to protect the lives of the agate grinders.
  • The National Labor Committee is calling upon the American people to sign a letter to the International Colored Gemstone Association, based in New York City and Idar-Oberstein, Germany, urging that we act together to end the exploitation, misery and wreckless homicide of India’s gemstone grinders. We are also asking the U.S. Government to help.


Preface: Valentine’s Day Massacre

How could something as beautiful as a gemstone cause so much suffering and death?

By Charles Kernaghan

There has always been a fascination in the United States with the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Books have been written and movies made depicting what happened that Valentine’s Day morning, Thursday, February 14, 1929, on the North Side of Chicago. Seven members of the Bugs Moran gang were lined up in a garage and gunned down by Al Capone’s rival gang, some of whom were dressed as policemen. According to the coroner’s report, seventy machinegun bullets and two shotgun blasts were fired at the Bugs Moran gang members.

But not a single newspaper article, not a word, let alone a movie, has been written in the United States to expose a massacre going on now in India, where over 2,000 men, women and children have died a miserable death polishing gemstones for export to the U.S.

This Valentine’s Day, heart-shaped agate and rose quartz jewelry and ornaments made in India are likely to sell very well. In India, the workers who grind and shape these gemstones will continue to breathe in the fine silica dust that will destroy their lungs and lead to their deaths.

What makes this so wrong is that silicosis is 100 percent preventable. But without proper occupational safeguards, over time silicosis becomes 100 percent fatal.

The story of gemstone grinding in India is one of exploitation, misery, deprivation and the death of thousands of poor people. It is also a story of neglect by the Government of India.

Why is it that we know so little in the United States? We purchase all sorts of products without any idea of who made them, where and under what conditions. Shouldn’t it be a natural instinct to want to know? It’s our world, but we do not ask.

It does not have to be this way.

There is great urgency here. In 2009, in the area around Khambhat City alone, 29 more agate grinders died of silicosis. Since the beginning of 2010, two more workers have been killed. Scores of others have difficulty walking even a few yards due to shortness of breath.

It would not cost very much to install proper exhaust ventilation systems combined with a wet grinding methods that would save the lives of the agate workers and their families. It really comes down to whether or not enough of us will raise our voices demanding that the jewelry companies importing agate and other gemstones from India clean up their operations. We should also ask our government to raise this issue with the Government of India, and to help.


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