Saturday, March 23, 2013

Inexpensive polished agate jewelry in US malls leaving a trail of death in India: Report

By Our Representative
Taking a serious view of large number of premature deaths of workers working in the agate industry in Gujarat, especially Khambhat, a recent analytical article released by America’s world news site, GlobalPost, has warned that “much of the inexpensive jewelry in US malls features polished ‘agate’ stones, which are leaving a trail of death in India.” Written by Jason Overdorf and titled “How the shiny 'agate' stones in jewelry and rosary beads are killing workers”, the article regrets, “Nobody keeps official statistics for India's total agate exports.”
It adds, “A GlobalPost analysis of Gems and Jewelry Export Promotion Council (GJEPC) statistics suggests that perhaps as much as $110 million worth of colored gemstones were shipped to the US between April 2012 and January 2013. By dollar value, the bulk of that comprised emeralds, sapphires and rubies, according to a GJEPC official. But cheap, semi-precious stones like agate may well have accounted for most of the tonnage.”
The article quotes documents with top Vadodara-based activist Jagdish Patel, obtained from Piers Trade Intelligence, a subscription-only database of US waterborne trade activity, to say that “US-based traders imported around 140,000 pounds of polished agate and similar semi-precious stones from India over five months in 2009. This included nearly 50,000 pounds of polished stones from Khambhat-based Krishna Agate.”
It emphasizes, “Those stones almost certainly end up in malls across America. Some of the country’s biggest retailers, as well as many online merchants and specialty shops, offer agate-based products.” Hence, it cautions, ”Consumers lack the information to know if a polished agate has contributed to the painful death of workers. Under US law, stores are required to label merchandise with the country of manufacture. Those rules don’t require companies to provide detailed information about where their immediate suppliers source the materials they use in the manufacturing. And traders in this competitive market keep their supply chains confidential. So a product labeled ‘made in California’ may well contain agate that was processed in India.”
The article says, that ”supply chain and safety information” obtained from “online shops and major retailers selling agate in the US” suggest that “some of these companies have strict internal policies against the exploitation of workers, wherever they may live.” Even then, it laments, most of them did not respond to repeated inquiries from GlobalPost about it, “and none provided sufficient information to allow an outsider to verify that they had eliminated dangerous practices from their supply chain.“
In fact, the article quotes Chicago-based Brian Leber, chief executive of Chicago-based Leber Jeweler Inc., who has done extensive advocacy work to eliminate dangerous and exploitative labor practices in the colored gemstones industry worldwide, to say that “it's not exactly rocket science. The cause of silicosis among gem cutters is known, and the means to prevent it are readily accessible”. Leber adds, “Even when it comes to finished jewelry items that lay claims to being 'ethical', things aren't always so cut-and-dry. For instance, we've seen items being sold by a well-known 'fair trade' retailer that, while they may have been made by a women's co-op in the developing world, utilize gemstone beads that were almost certainly cut by cutters who in a couple years will contract silicosis and likely die at a young age.”
Based on on-the-spot inquiry of the way the agate industry in Khambhat works, the article refers to the case of Hydersha Diwan, a 50-year-old, who was dying of silicosis, “a wasting lung disease that he contracted inhaling deadly silica dust as a grinder of agates — colorful, semi-precious stones exported to theUSA other Western countries, and commonly used in silver and brass jewelry, rosary beads and home decorations.” Diwan says, “I was a supervisor for a grinding and polishing unit for 10 years or so. But when the workers stopped coming, I did the grinding myself for three or four years.”
Once a proud, muscular man, Diwan is today a “hollow-eyed and emaciated, unable to sleep and hardly able to eat because of a relentless, hacking cough.” Through an interview with Jason Overdorf he Diwan coughed. “The sound of it is horrible: a dry, futile rasp that yields no relief. It goes on and on, forcing a listener to imagine the sand that fills his lungs. Finally, he reels forward and spits a long, viscous trail of saliva onto the pavement, making it clear why he has positioned himself on the edge of the stoop. Then the coughing overcomes him again”, the author says. Ten days after the interview, Diwan died.
The author reports, “An opaque, semi-precious stone, an agate would be familiar to almost any American, even if the mineral’s name isn’t. Agates vary in color from bright blue to glowing amber and deep black. They yield beautiful striped patterns when cut and polished. In addition to jewelry and rosary beads, they are used for decorative eggs, hearts and spheres and the like. New Age merchants market them as having the power to protect from stress, stomach pain, energy drains and even bad dreams.” He quotes a web retailer to say, “This is the stone that everyone should have”.
However, he says, “The stone's silica content means that grinders and polishers are highly susceptible to silicosis, or grinder's asthma — an incurable, tuberculosis-like occupational disease. That's especially true in India, where agate workers typically earn less than a dollar a day, and exploitative employment conditions prevent them from adopting even basic safety measures.” He adds, “According to investigations by the Vadodara-based People’s Training and Research Centre (PTRC) and the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Occupational health (NIOH), agate grinding and polishing here ranks among the world’s most dangerous work. As many as a third of Khambhat agate workers develop silicosis.”
The article underlines, “Since the grinding and polishing work takes place in sheds and empty lots located in residential areas, it also claims one out of ten of the workers’ children and family members, who breathe the same deadly air. Because of India's disastrous preference for tiny, unregulated sweatshops over formal sector industries, there's no visible target like Foxconn to shoulder the blame — even though Khambhat exports hundreds of thousands of pounds of polished agate to be sold by US retailers each year. And virtually nobody in India or abroad is doing anything to stop the killing of Khambhat's stone polishers.”
The article quotes a house-to-house survey in 2010 by PTRC, which has identified nearly 5,000 of these cottage industry workers, including around 1,200 workers drilling holes for stringing beads and 700 grinders — who run the highest risk of contracting silicosis. “When GlobalPost visited some of these grinders, a snowy coat of silica dust covered the machines. We could see and taste the silica in the air. Worse still, the processing was being done amid villages where hundreds of people live, often just outside workers' homes”, the author says.
He adds, “In one village, 50 paces from a house where another grinder had recently died, two women were grinding agate for beads without water or an exhaust system to collect the dust. Dressed in cheap cotton saris and rubber flip-flops, all they had for protection were the bandanas covering their noses and mouths. A drum polisher, which tumbles the stones together with abrasive materials, sat idle beside them. The air tasted of ozone, and a milky cloud of silica dust caught the sunlight.”
Pointing towards industry indifference, he author writes, “Jagdish Patel, of PTRC, worked for years to force local traders and government bodies like the Gems and Jewelry Export Promotion Council (GJEPC) to acknowledge that the industry was killing workers. A balding chemical engineer whose cherubic face belies the dogged temperament of a trade union activist, Jagdish Patel traveled to Hong Kong, Geneva and Basel, to protest at trade fairs and meet with officials from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and World Health Organization (WHO).”
He adds, “Only after a damning 2010 report on silicosis in the Indian agate industry by the US-based National Labor Committee did the GJEPC finally visit Khambhat to address the issue. But when GJEPC finally organized a public meeting to discuss silicosis, it was monopolized by traders who refused to accept that their industry was causing the disease.”

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