Hearts of Darkness: An expose of semi-precious gemstone polishing in India

By Page on April 3, 2011 at 8:25 pm


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.

To learn more about the issues with stone polishing please visit this link to read The Hearts of Darkness report: hearts_of_darkness1-12