India is home to the largest diamond cutting and polishing industry globally. For an industry so big, the problems are bigger. Labour conditions in the industry have been continuously deteriorating. Especially in the diamond city of Surat, which employs over 1.5 million workers in the industry, mainly from poor parts of Saurashtra region of Gujarat state. In the past, there have been problems of low incomes and non-existent employee benefits, long working hours, low level of education, bad working conditions and casual workers having no access to social benefits among many others. Over the years these problems still prevail, however are supressed by the powerful men ruling the industry.
Recently, a 29-year-old diamond polisher from Surat, committed suicide being the latest among many others who have taken their lives because of low wages and improper working conditions. Interviews with various stakeholders including diamond unit owners, brokers, labour groups, families and police shed light on nine other suicide cases by diamond industry workers in Surat since November.
While some workers earn fixed wages of USD 1,450 or more a month, over 80% of the total labourers earn just INR 1 to 25 (~ USD 0.00 – 0.40) for each stone they polish and moreover have no social benefits. Thomson Reuters Foundation analysed suicide cases of men between January and April, in Surat. Among the 23, there were 6 cases of diamond workers who had either hanged themselves or drank poison. There were 3 other cases found in the Saurashtra region.
While a police officer who investigated suicide case of 2 diamond workers, denied a link between death and work, other police officers working in that area did see a link between the two. Similarly, the Government officials say that the workers are paid well and the industry helps the relatives of the workers who died or committed suicide by setting up schools, hospitals and giving jobs, campaigners have another picture to show. They say that most of the big polishing and cutting houses have air-conditioned workshops, however, small workshops have no toilets or ventilation and workers, live, eat and sleep in the workshops in slave-like conditions.
Sometimes, workers even have to go without wages for two months at stretch as the business is slow. They have to borrow money to meet ends. They cannot even complain, as they fear losing jobs.
In the midst of the slavery and suppression, there are some international players who take special care of labour conditions. Chow Tai Fook from Hong Kong, a major importer of cut and polish diamonds from India, deals only with those companies only who comply with norms set by RJC. Only a handful of diamond companies in India are certified RJC members, which binds them to follow a set of labour rules.