The fiery brightness of precious and semi-precious gemstones have been desired since ancient times, but too few consumers realize that beauty comes at a painfully high price to developing nations around the world. Reports about the traffic of precious gemstones read like a who’s who of human rights violations and include everything from child labor to apartheid to modern day slavery. The occupational hazards of gemstone mining, cutting, and polishing make the use of child labor in these high risk professions even more reprehensible. Many consumers have a vague understanding that proceeds from the sale of precious stones have been used to fund atrocities leading to the term “conflict diamonds”, but rarely do they understand the scope or size of the problem, and virtually none are aware that the average Garnet or Amethyst was cut by a 12 year old boy in Rajasthan (Hoppe, 2005). Child labor in the gemstone traffic is a serious societal concern deserving global consideration and that consideration will only be effective in addressing the problem if it is aggressively championed by industry leaders.
The mining and production of precious stones has a long and checkered history. A hundred years before the concept of a fair trade initiative even existed Cecil Rhodes, the founder of De Beers, was busy building an empire by robbing indigenous peoples of their resources. Rhodes, who was infamously quoted as saying "I prefer land to niggers” (Sweet, 2002), went on to develop a conglomerate that maintained an 80% monopoly on the global diamond throughout the 19th century (Cowen, 2000). Because some of the richest deposits of precious gemstones have been found in the poorest of counties such as India and Africa, these discoveries often lead to exploitation, apartheid, and the disenfranchising of native interests in tribal land. Even today large, well-funded foreign mining corporations are seeking to prevent the native Inuit population of Greenland from using simple hand tools to mine rubies on ancestral land as they have done for generations (Madsen, 2010). A quick web search of the name of almost any third world country pared with the words “Gem mining, production, human rights violations” will return multiple results from highly reputable sources. Civil rights violations are so pervasive in the history of gemstone production it is virtually impossible to put an accurate figure on the damage.
Underage child labor is the foundation upon which the international house of gems is built. According to Meghan Hoppe (Hoppe, 2005) of IHS Child Slave Labor News:
In 1993, India exported more than $1 billion worth of gems, which is the major export by value from India to the United States. "The majority of these exports are diamonds, which are processed and polished in Surat, Gujarat, and emeralds that are polished in Jaipur, Rajasthan…The Operations Research Group in its 1993 report singled out the diamond-cutting industry in Surat, Gujarat, of special alarm for child labor. It found children, generally boys between 12 and 13 years old, polishing diamonds for a standard of seven to nine hours a day in unhealthy conditions… In addition to diamonds, children also polish emeralds, sapphires, rubies, lapis lazuli, turquoise, corals, garnets, amethysts, and topaz
Children who belong in middle school operate drilling machines and use hazardous chemicals with little to no safety equipment while the younger ones sacrifice their bronchi at the polishing wheel. To top it all off, for the first two years of indentured servitude a child is considered an ‘apprentice’ and works for no pay. Hoppe goes on to say:
Workplace conditions are commonly bad. They are congested, poorly lit and ventilated, and over half of the industry's workforce suffers from work-related ailments such as kidney dysfunction, lung disease, stomach problems, wheezing, pains in their joints and eyesores. These are all ailments that could be prevented if measures were taken to control industrial health hazards. Doctors in the area revealed that more than 30 percent of the children get tuberculosis, seemingly due to unhygienic conditions, overcrowding, and malnutrition. Children complain of body ache and finger tips scraped by the polishing discs. The most frequent complaints are eyestrain and allergic dermatitis because of regular use of dirty water.
India is bad enough, but Africa is a hundred times worse. The beautiful lavender Tanzanite comes to us direct from Tanzania where child slaves dig it with pickaxes in rickety, water-filled shafts inside mines topped with razor wire and guarded by attack dogs (LoBaido, 2001). As Marsha White of the Gaurdian so eloquently put it “Many children worldwide are obliged to work, simply in order to eat. But that is no excuse for them to be involved in the "worst forms of child labour" (White, 2002).
An in-depth understanding of the issue begs the question of what is society in general and industry in particular doing to address the unethical origins of most of the world’s precious stones. De Beers Diamond Jewelers has the following to say in their statement on social responsibility:
The World Diamond Council has worked successfully with the United Nations, governments, and groups such as Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada to introduce a system for the certification of the source of uncut diamonds to prevent the trade in conflict diamonds. This system, known as the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), was formally adopted in November 2002, and came into operation on January 1, 2003. Andrew Coxon, President of the De Beers Institute of Diamonds, is a founding member of the World Diamond Council and spearheaded this initiative on behalf of the diamond industry. Today, as a result of the Kimberly Process’s success, 99.8% of the world’s diamond supply is conflict free (De Beers, 2010)
This sounds all well and good, but recently several of the founding members of the Kimberly Process have resigned alleging that the system is “failing effectively to address issues of non-compliance, smuggling, money laundering and human rights abuses in the world's... diamond fields” and “have effectively condoned diamond smuggling - the very thing we were established to prevent" (IRIN, 2009). When asked about the use of child slave labor in the diamond industry Roger Van Eghen, spokesman for De Beers, told the Sunday Herald the company had no influence over working conditions and "…they should really write to the employers' unions in the countries concerned. We did say we would supply one of our people to go along as an observer. At the moment, we don't think we should be doing any more than we have offered to do and have done in the past” (Nutt, 99).
If industry is failing to adequately address the societal concerns the gem trade engenders then society must lead the leaders to effect a permanent change. Awareness and national exposure can lead to a grassroots change in the way that we do business. Fair Trade Gems encourages consumers to “vote with your dollars” and make ethical statements with their purchases. The major jewelry chains must exercise their purchasing power to demand ethically sourced gems. Artisan metalsmiths must become aware of how and where their stones are sourced and demand the ethical cutting and polishing of the gems they purchase by patronizing companies like Columbia Gem House that strictly adhere to Fair Trade Gems Protocols. Consumers of fine jewelry must be willing to pay adult wages to artisan workers instead of accepting the slave labor of small hands in exchange for a couple dollars off. The world must stand up as one and make it matter that we’re adorning ourselves with another’s pain. This alone will make industry understand that another day has dawned and we will no longer tolerate the flagrant abuse of our youngest resources. So take a moment and spread the word, take a minute to change a mind, do your part to change the world.
Cowen, Richard. (200, March) Diamonds, Gold, and South Africa. Retrieved from http://mygeologypage.ucdavis.edu/cowen/~gel115/115ch15diamonds.html
De Beers. (2010) Statement of Social Responsibility. Retrieved September 19, 2010 from http://www.debeers.com/page/socialresp
Hoppe, Megan. (2005, May) Child Slave Labor in India's Diamond Industry. Child Slave Labor News. Retrieved from http://ihscslnews.org/view_article.php?id=61
IRIN Global. (2009, June 22) Credibility of Kimberley Process on the line, say NGOs. Retrieved from
LoBaido, Anthony. (2001, Dec 10) Africa's New Bloodstained Gems. World Net Daily. Retrieved from http://www.wnd.com/?pageId=11824
Madsen, Niels (2010, March 3) Greenland Moves to Formalize Apartheid System in Gem Exploration. Retrieved from http://www.truenorthgemsapartheid.com/greenland-moves-to-formalize-apartheid-system-in-gem-exploration/
Nutt, Kathleen. (1999, December 26) Festive Gems Polished by Child Labour. The Sunday Herald. Retrieved from
Sweet, Mathew. (2002, March 16) Cecil Rhodes: A Bad Man in Africa. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/cecil-rhodes-a-bad-man-in-africa-654195.html
White, Marcia. ( 2002, May 4) The Gaurdian. Retrieved from http://www.betterbytheyear.org/burkina_faso/burkina_case_study3.htm