Interactive: A diamond's journey: Grime behind the glitter?

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updated 6/26/2009 8:01:40 PM ET 2009-06-27T00:01:40

Skills required for cutting and polishing diamonds are passed down by workers from generation to generation or picked up in the traditional master-apprentice relationship.

Of the four Cs — color, clarity, carat and cut — nature dictates the first three aspects, but the cut, often considered the benchmark by which a diamond’s beauty is judged, is the only factor determined by human hand.

It is the human eye and touch that shape the rough stones and take them to a level of scintillation and brilliance.

Behind the glittering world of India’s diamond-cutting industry lies the grime of exploitation and child labor.

India enjoys a near-monopoly in the diamond-cutting industry, but it is the low wages and easy availability of labor that keep the industry profitable.

India gets a lot of small diamonds to cut and polish. The detailed nature of the work and the repetitive strain of cutting and polishing these tiny specks of stones make it labor-intensive and often unhealthy. There is a lot of dust from the ground diamonds that doesn’t always get filtered out from the crowded factory rooms and proves harmful for the workers' health.

Besides, the small stones often need sharp eyes and deft hands. Thus children are often highly prized in this trade. Their keen eyes and small, nimble hands can cut stones that are sometimes no more than a speck of light. These are called half-pointers — 100 points make a carat, which is one-fifth of a gram.

Child labor is illegal in India but remains widespread. By conservative estimates 13 million children work in India, many in hazardous industries.

The diamond merchants of Bombay (now called Mumbai) that control the Indian diamond trade do not cut diamonds themselves. That job is reserved for workers who migrate from the villages to the city for better jobs. The workshops that employ them receive the uncut diamonds on a piecework basis from a distributor working on a commission for the merchant. A few are processed in larger factories.

Most of the cutters are not protected by India's Factory Act, and there is little enforcement of the Child Labor Act.  According to one journalist’s eyewitness account, the working quarters were not much bigger than an average Western living room. Each room had three to five cutting wheels with workers squatting around each. These areas are often the source of accidents as they are left unguarded, and workers live and sleep by them. Most cutters are males and did not seem to be beyond their 20s — many were much younger, some under 10.

Since the Surat diamond industry has been in a harsh spotlight for poor working conditions, some merchants are trying to clean up their act, and the diamond district is trying to shed its grimy past.

As the country opens up to international trade, there is pressure to follow global labor laws and better business practices. In many areas dingy workshops have given way to swanky workplaces where workers use computerized planners and laser cutters.

A 2004 Times of India report states: “The use of child labor is rapidly decreasing as the city’s diamond industry consolidates into large professionally managed units. All workers are adults and the working environment is comfortable and well-lit … and a senior cutter can demand a salary of $5,000-$7,500 a year.” Diamond-cutting is listed in the top 10 “hazardous industries” by the Indian government, and the employment of children under 15 is banned.

Some government reports state that Surat diamond workers earn upward of $2,500 a year — nearly five times the average income. But there is much debate about the actual wage as rates differ widely in an industry that is not regulated and often exploitative.

Sources: Glitter & Greed: The Secret World of the Diamond Cartel, wsws.org, diamondintelligence.com, wsj.com, De Beers, brilliantearth.com, time.com

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