SURAT, July 10, (RTRS): After polishing diamonds destined for luxury stores from New York to Hong Kong for nearly 10 hours in a cramped workshop in western India, Vikram Raujibhai went home, waited for his family to leave, and locked the front door. Raujibhai doused himself in kerosene and lit a match. His family returned to find the 29-year-old’s charred body, his case the latest in a series among workers with low wages and poor work conditions in India’s booming diamond industry, as uncovered by a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation. Investigations spread over a year in the western Indian state of Gujarat found a pattern of suicides — many shrouded in silence — in the industry that cuts and polishes 90 percent of gems sold globally, with many workers paid per stone.
A few workers in the industry earn fixed wages — some even up to 100,000 Indian rupees ($1,450) or more a month — but over 80 percent of the total workforce earn a piece rate of 1 to 25 rupees for each stone they polish and have no social benefits. Interviews with diamond unit owners, brokers, labour groups, families and the police revealed nine suicides since last November in the city of Surat, a hub for the trade, and the Saurashtra region where the workers are from. But experts said this was likely to be just the tip of the iceberg in India, where industry figures show diamond exports surged 70 percent in the past decade, with no mandatory certification to ensure diamond processing is labour abuse free.
Families are reluctant to blame the diamond business, which employs over 1.5 million men — mainly from drought-prone parts of Saurashtra — for fear of losing work, with few other options. Raujibhai’s mother Wasanben is still coming to terms with the death of her son, the sole breadwinner after her husband, also a diamond polisher, died a decade ago of a heart attack.
“Vikram started polishing diamonds when he was 16. He had been struggling to get more work,” Wasanben said as she pulled open the curtains of the room where her son died in January. Sitting outside the soot-layered room in a slum in Bhavnagar town in Saurashtra, Wasanben said her son was worried about mounting expenses and being unable to find love and marry.
“He earned 6,000 Indian rupees ($90) a month, but we were a family of seven and the money was never enough,” she said. “I assured him things will be fine and we were managing to eat. That day he waited for us to leave for a wedding (to kill himself).” The skills of Indian polishers, after generations in the industry, and low labour costs ensure major mining firms from De Beers — the world’s largest diamond producer by value — to Russia’s Alrosa get raw diamonds processed in India. When asked about worker suicides, De Beers — of the Anglo American Plc Group — the world’s second biggest mining company Rio Tinto, and Russia’s Alrosa said they had not encountered any cases in firms to which they sell rough diamonds.
Government officials said workers were paid well and the industry is “positive”, setting up schools, hospitals and giving jobs to relatives of workers who died or committed suicide. But campaigners said while most big firms have air-conditioned workshops and fixed wages, many smaller outfits have no toilets or ventilation and workers live, eat and sleep in the workshops in slavelike conditions. Rough diamonds imported to India must be certified ‘conflict-free’ by the Kimberley Process scheme to ensure they have not been used to fund civil wars and are free of human rights abuse, not so called “blood diamonds”.
KP members account for about 99.8 percent of global production of rough diamonds. But certification of cut and polished diamonds given by the global non-profit Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) is optional.
Only about 90 firms from about 15,000 big and small diamond companies in Gujarat are certified RJC members. About 30 are authorised buyers of rough diamonds from De Beers that binds them to follow a set of labour rules. But no one is pushing companies for certification of processed diamonds. India’s Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council — set up by the Indian government to boost the country’s exports of gems — said it was up to unit owners to seek certification.
Gujarat labour officials said they had no role to play except ensuring the country’s labour laws were enforced. But campaigners are concerned about the welfare of workers paid by stone and with no social benefits, who often take on debt to feed and educate their families. “The business has grown, there is better technology … but only about 25 percent of workers earn enough to sustain themselves,” said Gautam Kanani, commerce professor at Surat’s J.D. Gabani Commerce College who studied the industry in 2007. For some diamond workers the consequences can be fatal. Stories of suicides gleaned from police files show a pattern — a seemingly untroubled worker suddenly killing himself.
The highest number of more than 5,000 suicides reported in Surat city since 2010 were in areas where diamond workers live, police data the Surat police shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation shows. In Surat, the Thomson Reuters Foundation analysed the suicides of 23 men between January and April and found six cases of diamond workers who had hanged themselves or drank poison.
It found three similar cases in the Saurashtra region. Police officer Ashish Dodiya this year investigated the suicides of two diamond workers in their early twenties who drank poison. Bharatbhai Jatharbhai Bhammar, 22, moved to Surat three years ago and lived in the workshop where he polished diamonds. He was at work when he drank poison in April this year. “His job was to give the final polish to the diamond. He worked 10 hours every day like we all do,” said his cousin, Lakshmanbhai Khodubhai Bhammar, who also polishes gems in Surat. “I got a call from his workshop that day. He asked me to save him when I was rushing him to the hospital.”
The other suicide victim, Rajeshbhai Makwana, had been polishing diamonds in Surat for six years and made about 13,000 rupees a month. He ended his life after an argument with his wife in February this year. “He had no problems,” Makwana’s brother Santosh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Dodiya dismissed a link between the deaths and work in the cases he investigated. “They didn’t die because of the diamond business. There are more cases of diamond worker suicides because of their high numbers in this area,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “No diamond worker will die of starvation. They are paid on time, every month.”
Other police officers stationed in the area where diamond workers live in Surat did see a link between the suicide cases they investigated and diamond work. “(The workers) take loans and are never able to repay them. We get such cases (suicides) when the (global) demand for diamonds drops and employers do not pay them,” said Rameshbhai Gulabrao, who investigated two worker suicides this year.
Some workers said they go without wages for at least two months every year when business is slow and they have to borrow money to make ends meet. In one case, a few kilometres from Bhammar’s home in a crammed settlement in Surat, Miteshbhai Hiteshbhai Kansara, 22, hanged himself in March this year from a kitchen fan in the one-room flat he shared with his parents and younger brother. “He worked with big diamonds and earned a fixed monthly salary of around 10,000 rupees.
This is good money in Surat,” said Kansara’s younger brother Vatsal. “He was good at studies. He studied up to 12th grade and was planning to go to college. He didn’t want to polish diamonds.” Ramesh Ziliriya, who set up a diamond labour association in Rajkot in 2013 to protect workers rights, said while debt bondage and child labour may be a thing of the past in the diamond industry, “slavery and suppression continues”. “Workers do not protest their low wages as they fear losing their jobs,” the former gem polisher said.