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India: Cutters

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

Of the 4Cs — 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 shapes the rough stones and takes 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 keeps 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 worker’s 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 sometime 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 despite India's booming economic market, child labor remains widespread. By conservative estimates 13 million children work in India, many in hazardous industries.

A partial ban on child labor took effect in October 2006. The new law bans hiring children under age 14 as servants in homes or as workers in factories or businesses.

Critics counter this and earlier attempts by the government as having little impact.

The diamond merchants of Bombay (now called Mumbai) that control the Indian diamond trade do not cut diamonds themselves. That job is reserved for agricultural workers who migrate to the city for better jobs. The workshops that employ them receive the uncut diamonds on a piece-work 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 hardly any enforcement of the Child Labor Act. 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 workers earn about $2,400 a year — nearly five times the average per capita income — in diamond polishing and sometimes significantly more. However, there is much debate about the actual wage as rates differ widely in an industry that is not regulated and often exploitative.

Here is how Australian journalist/author Janine Roberts describes what she saw in her book, Glitter & Greed: The Secret World of the Diamond Cartel.

“Countless windows lit by long neon tubes slung low over the cutting wheels. We went from one workshop to another. They were on average not much bigger than a normal western living room. Each housed from 3 to 5 cutting tables or “ghantis.” Each ghanti had 4 or 5 workers squatting around it, each cutting on his (rarely her) segment of the cutting wheel The ghanti is a “scaife”, or horizontal rotating cutting wheel, driven by a motorized belt. These belts were the source of many accidents as they were unguarded and next the unprotected legs of the cutters.

Many of the young workers lived and slept by their cutting wheels or, sometimes, on the flat rooftops above.

Mostly it is males who cut. None of the cutters seemed to have past their twenties - and many were much much younger, clearly far below the legal age. Some were under 10.”