When thinking of the human rights abuses that occur in the diamond and precious gem industry, one conjures up images of dark, dirty, and dangerous mines with exploited and underpaid miners. Often, consumers are unaware that many of the human rights abuses in the diamond and precious gem industry occur in the cutting and polishing processes.
These abuses lie mainly in child and bonded labor, as well as the extreme health hazards the process can present.
Silicosis is an occupational lung disease caused by inhaling crystalline silica dust, a toxin that progressively debilitates lung capacity. The disease is characterized by shortness of breath, cough, fever, and bluish skin. Silicosis is the most common occupational disease worldwide and is irreversible, with no cure.
According to “Hearts of Darkness”, a 2010 report by the National Labor Committee on gemstone cutting in India (which cuts and polish 70% of the world’s diamond yield ) more than 2,000 men, women, and children have died from silicosis caused by polishing gemstones used for export to the U.S. and Europe. According to the same report, 30% of all gemstone workers will die of silicosis. And these same workers are paid just 17.5-33.5 cents an hour for this extremely hazardous work.
Silicosis is 100% preventable. Through the use of simple technology such as personal respirators, dry air filtering, and a wet cutting process, exposure to silica dust can be drastically reduced.
To achieve the small facets desired when cutting gemstones, you either need very expensive, advanced cutting tools or very small hands. In places where access to these tools is limited, it’s easier, cheaper, and faster to use child labor. While the majority of large and high-quality stones are cut in Belgium and Israel (both of which have very high ethical standards), many low- to middle-end diamonds are cut in large factories in India, Thailand, and China, where labor is cheap and less regulated.
Child labor has historically been an issue in the gemstone value chain but there is little contemporary research that explores the current status of children in the industry. That said, the existence of substantial numbers of child workers in the Thai and Indian gemstone manufacturing industry is well documented. Estimates from India in 1997 suggested that there were around 20,000 children among the 200,000 gem workers in Jaipur, Rajasthan. According to the “Hearts of Darkness” report, many of these workers start when they are 12 or 13 years old and are paid 11-13.5 cents per hour.
Bonded labor- also known as debt bondage- refers to the practice of pledging labor as payment or collateral on a debt. Child bonded labor refers to situations where a child’s labor services are oﬀered in exchange for a loan. In some cases, this occurs because the labor of the child alone, or of the entire family, is directly oﬀered. In other cases, bondage is intergenerational: once a parent is no longer able to work, debts are passed down from parent to child.
Bonded labor was outlawed by the 1956 U.N. Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, and most countries outside of the U.N. have passed their own ban. The Indian Bonded Labour System Abolition Act of 1976 prohibits any service arising out of debt, including forced labor and bonded labor. However, it is estimated that millions of people are still held in bonded labor around the world, including 15 million children in India alone (Human Rights Watch Asia, 1996).
In the gem cutting industry, when workers borrow money from their “trader”—who supplies the raw stones and organizes the cutting and export of gemstones—they become “bonded labor.” A bonded worker cannot quit or look for another job until the debt is paid in full, a task which is often make difficult by the employer who may decrease an employee’s wages and charge high levels of interest. If the worker dies, his wife is asked to take over the grinding. If she dies, her children will be asked to do so.
Ethically Cut Stones
Luckily, new gemstone businesses are being founded that address the issue of ethical stone cutting and polishing, and some existing businesses are responding to these human rights violations and adjusting their practices accordingly.
Kerin Jacobs of The Raw Stone stated in a recent article on Ethical Gem Cutting in Jaipur that there are only two ways to ensure that gems are cut ethically. The first is to have your gems cut by an independent professional in the US, UK, Israel, or Australia. The second is to travel to one of the countries where gems are more commonly cut to “find a safe and well-kept facility employing only adults, and to sit there, watch, and wait for each and every gem to be cut and polished”. Kerin did exactly this, and with relative ease she found a small family gem cutting business with safe working conditions. 
At Bario-Neal, we acquire our gems through dedicated, responsible suppliers such as Kerin. Columbia Gem House, one of our colored gemstone suppliers, prides itself on its workplace standards, “with wages that are three times the minimum wage, room & board, paid vacation, overtime pay, medical, disability and unemployment insurance, and annual bonuses. Our factory has nearly a zero rate of attrition, thereby increasing the skills of the craftsmen to the highest degree of experience in the industry.” (7). The diamonds that we source are cut in Belgium, New York, Canada, and Israel by fairly paid experts in safe facilities.
Another way to ensure that your stone has not contributed to human rights abuses is to choose a rough stone, which completely eliminates the dangerous process of cutting. To read more about rough stones, check out our blog articles on rough diamonds or our interview with Kerin of The Raw Stone .
 Hearts of Darkness, http://bario-neal.com/media/upload/2011/04/hearts_of_darkness1-12.pdf
 Jamie Cross, Sanne van der Wal & Esther de Haan, February 2010, Rough Cut: Sustainability Issues in the Coloured Gemstone Industry