Chapter 15. In Debt Bondage - the Child Cutters of India

This chapter cries out for justice... but the version here is as I wrote it two years ago - since then things have got worse for the Indian diamond cutters. In January 2001 the money paid to them for fully cutting and polishing a gem diamond was cut from 40c US to 25c - giving them an average take-home income of about $1 a day. The chapter in the downloadable files - and in the CDRom version - has been fully updated to take into account these and other recent developments

...In September 1994 the world's press reported a horrific outbreak of bubonic plague causing tens of thousands to flee the crowded northern Indian city of Surat where half of the world's gem diamonds were and are still cut. The Indian government prepared roadblocks fearing refugees from Surat would carry the disease India-wide. The plague had its origins in the poverty stricken workers' quarters of a city where half a million diamond cutters lived.

Three years before this plague outbreak I was in Surat filming the road side hovels and diamond cutting sweat shops where young boy cutters work and sleep, with their toothbrushes by the spinning grinding wheels and bed rolls hanging from the walls and ceilings. Neville Huxham, the elegantly suited head of De Beers Public Relations, ironically had revealed their existence to me. He was anxious that I present a balanced critique of the industry. He asked: 'If you are going to examine the living conditions of blacks who work in South African diamond mines, put these into their proper perspective. Contrast them with those of Aborigines in Australia and of the diamond cutters in the Indian sweatshops.'

....But despite De Beers' denials, UADW Assistant General Secretary Yamina De Laet stated in 1997 that there is proof that children were being exploited by the diamond industry. A document circulated at the Congress charges that in certain tasks the average age of the child worker was 12 years old and that these young children often worked 12 hours a day.

...Unionists lobbying at the International Conference on Child Labour in the Norwegian capital of Oslo in 1997 described the diamond cutting workshops that employed child labour as the "dirty end of the diamond and precious stone business." In documentation released to journalists, the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU) noted while the international gem industry generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, "tens of thousands of children" in India worked in "cramped, filthy and dangerous conditions" for poverty wages.

De Laet of UADW, told The Namibian newspaper in November 1997 they had filmed children as young as six-years-old working on dangerous polishing wheels. They had also filmed "people living and sleeping at their workplaces and trash, human faeces and industry waste clogging the open sewers that run between the warren of gemstone shops".

Later De Beers conceded that the Union was right in saying that thousands of children were cutting diamonds. It was now admitted to some 24,000 children being employed in the Indian diamond cutting industry but other estimates were far higher.

The diamond cutting industry was not just exploiting a very young and vulnerable workforce, but also exploiting a workforce in which many were in debt bondage. Both practices are explicitly prohibited under the United Nations 1956 "Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery" as "institutions and practices similar to slavery".

Anti-Slavery International described bonded labour - or debt bondage- as "probably the least well known form of slavery today, and yet it is the most widely used method of enslaving people. A person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan. The person is then tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, often for seven days a week. The value of the work is invariably greater than the original sum of money borrowed. "

Justice PN Bhagwati, Indian Supreme Court judge, in 1982 declared; "[Bonded labourers] are non-beings, exiles of Civilisation, living a life worse than that of animals, for the animals are at least free to roam about as the) like"... "7his system, under which one person can be bonded to provide labour for another for years and years until an alleged debt is supposed to be wiped out, which never seems to happen during the lifetime of the bonded labourer, is totally incompatible with the nets egalitarian socio-economic order which we have promised to build... "

The Supplementary Convention does not forbid the repayment of debts by working for the loan-giver - but forbids "debt bondage" in which the person making the loan can add unspecified interest or other costs to the loan or not pay the debtor the normal wages.

On October 23rd 1996 the CSO informed DIB that "before considering any client as a potential sightholder, the CSO always assesses health and safety standards of the work place." DIB added; "The CSO also regularly inspects factories of sightholders to ensure that health and safety regulations are being met, says our source."

As for De Beers refusing to supply diamonds to merchants who would let them be cut by children, this simply did not correspond to what we saw in India. The industry defended itself by "explaining" in many cultures; children often are expected to work to help out the family. But what we were told in India was that many children were sold into a form of slavery to the recruiters who went from one impoverished village to another - or, went into debt bondage later.

In India men of the highest caste traditionally wore diamonds as a sign of hard virility and I found there was still little sign of romance in the way they conducted their diamond industry when I went to India. What I found was part of the underside of the diamond trade. If you wear any diamonds, when you look at them think of the children cutting diamonds in sweat-shops and debt bondage. The chances are strong that some were cut in such conditions to the enrichment of a small number of diamond cartel millionaires. END

much more about India and diamonds in this chapter - there are some 850,000 in the diamond cutting industry - and 85% o0f the world's gem diamonds are cut there.