The Children that Cut Our Diamonds

By Janine Roberts - >

This is an excerpt from the author's not yet forth-coming book 'Glitter and Greed'. It was about to appear as a Doubleday - Doubleday wrote to me saying they had assessed it as "accomplished, sensational and important". They gave me an international contract. They put it in their advance catalogues, designed its cover - helped me with a free flat on the slopes of Table Mountain in South Africa from which I could do my resarch... Then pressure came from whom they called "rich and important people"who may have seen it in their advance catalogue - and it was dropped - before the final text was even submitted to a lawyer.

I am now looking for a new publisher.



Cut diamonds have been India's major export for more than a decade. Because of its low wages, India has been a powerhouse driving the profits of the diamond industry sky high. Here it is that most of the glitter of the diamond world is created. About 500 million diamonds were cut in India in 1992. ii The major Indian diamond merchants are today merchantile princes with offices in all major international diamond centres. In 1993, India exported 12.5 million carats worth officially US$ 3,444 million.

When the Chairman of the Central Selling Organisation (CSO) and deputy chairman of De Beers, Nicky Oppenheimer, came to India for the first time in February 1994, accompanied by Anthony Oppenheimer, the president of the CSO, and Garry Ralf, the managing director of the CSO, he spoke in a tribute to India's service to the CSO of how India was now first in the world both in terms of the value and of the weight of diamonds processed having now surpassed Israel - a country that dominated in the 1970s and the early 1980s. In 1993 Israel exported US$2,500 million dollars' worth of cut diamonds, some billion dollars less than India. Israel's cut diamond exports were made up of far fewer stones since on average its diamonds were worth US$817 a carat, much more than India's US$219. iii

The Oppenheimer cartel directly or indirectly controls the supply of rough diamonds to India. In general the better stones are provided to European or American merchants, the machine cuttable to Israel and the rest to Indian. It channels diamonds through a few favoured Indian merchants as this helps it maintain control. About 10 Indian families controlled India's entire output in 1992 and they were scarcely taxed at all. The rise of these families in the past 15 years has been one of the most significant changes in the diamond world. These Indian diamond merchant princes are now powerful in the diamond markets of Antwerp and New York and even in Tel Aviv.

In India De Beers is said to monitor the Indian trade through a company called Hindustan Diamonds. When I met the 2 Indian generals on the board of a De Beers' related company in India, Hindustan Diamonds, I asked them what their company had done about the living conditions of the diamond cutter. They confessed that the living conditons were very poor, they said they wanted them to improve, but, they asked, what could they do?

The diamond merchants of Bombay that control the Indian diamond trade do not cut diamonds themselves. That job is reserved to Patels who worked until comparatively recently as agricultural workers in the state of Gujerat. 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 go to be cut in Surat north of Bombay - so I went there with a film crew to make a documentary for WGBH Boston and for the BBC.

Surat is one of the most polluted cities I have ever stayed in. It's factories belch smoke as if there is no tomorrow. The roads in the centre of the town are lined with shanties of flimsy construction, impoverished but often scrupulously clean inside. These are the home of workers who have abandoned parched lands in the north for work in the city. Many diamond cutters were recruited as sharp eyed children and brought to the city by travelling agents going from village to village. We had an Indian researcher go into Surat ahead of us to arrange for interviews, to find local experts and to ask for filming permissions. One of the first places he found for us to film was a 'Diamond Nagir' or 'Diamond Village' outside Surat. He told us that this had been opened by an Oppenheimer and that we had permission to film - but he had been told we 'must not film the children.'

Child labour is illegal in India but young eyes are much prized in the diamond trade. India gets all the really small diamonds to cut and these demand the keenest of eyes. At one factory I asked for their smallest cut diamonds. They showed me two that were no more than specks of light. They were 'half- pointers'. There are 100 points to a carat. A carat is one fifth of a gram. These diamonds therefore weighted one thousandth of a gram. Each of them had been cut with about 50 sides. They were so light that I had to turn off the fan to insure there was not the slightest of breezes before taking them out to examine them.

Tim Capon, a director of De Beers Centenary, justified the high prices charged for diamonds by saying that, among other factors, the polishing of them : 'requires skills of a very high order.' iv I had to agree with him about the skill involved looking at these flecks of light. It is a shame the cutters are not paid enough to justify even moderate prices in the jewellers' shops.

We decided that we would not promise to exclude the children from our film at the 'Diamond Nagir' but that we would try to film the factory nonetheless. It is situated on the outskirts of Surat, surrounded by high walls protected by para-military guards. The workers lived, worked, eat and slept in or by the plant with several blocks of . flats serving as worker's living quarters. We passed a military style sentry post through a gate into a courtyard surrounded by single storied buildings. From here we entered a large marbled reception area that had a shallow pool of water with plastic frogs as a centrepiece.

Soon we were ushered into the office of the brothers who ran the establishment. They were large and muscular men. Their leader sat at a vast desk with a huge light over it similar to those that light pool tables. They were keen to show us their diamond production. For our cameras they emptied out cloth bag after cloth bag, scattering hundreds of diamonds onto the desk's polished surface. They clearly felt uneasy, the good humour felt false. The atmosphere was more akin, I imagined nervously, to some heavy scene in a gangster movie. I probably felt apprehensive because I knew we intended to film the illegal child labour they employed. The decore in the room was heavy, solid - a nouveau riche style. I could not imagine the Oppenheimers in such a setting - but we were told it was Anthony Oppenheimer who had opened this place.

But these men did not try to extract a promise from us not to film the child labour. Instead they assigned us escorts who would watch what we filmed. The factory rooms were large, ventilated, although with no provision for filtering out the pervasive dust of ground diamonds. The numbers of females working here was unusual. 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.

One of our guides was a large hulk of a man who scarcely said a word. He watched our video camera to see where we directed it. If he thought us about to film a child, he would drag the child away. This he did incredibly, naively, directly in front of us. In one enormous workshop, he was joined in this task, sadly, by a hump-backed man. It was like a scene from a Dickensian novel. As they clearly did not understand the mysteries of long focus lens, they did not spot the children we were filming. We captured on video-tape the faces of scores of under-aged workers.

After this we returned into the swarming anthill of diamond cutting workshops at Surat's centre. In the evenings the dusk revealed 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 the 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 motorised belt. These belts were the source of many accidents as they were unguarded and next the unprotected legs of the cutters.

Above the cutters were garish portraits of Ganesh, the Elephant God or of other deities, and slings holding the cutters' scanty belongings and sleeping mats. One young man I met kept his toothbrush taped to a ghanti. Many of the young workers lived and slept by their cutting wheels or, sometimes, on the flat rooftops above. Some lived in the hovels that crowded every city space like the cars parked in a German city. One took us to his home by a bus station. It was a tent with two sections, dirt floors and improvised furniture. A cloud of children enveloped him as he walked in. The hovel was meticulously clean and inhabited by elegant sari clad women and men in tee shirts. The family made tea for us on a fire on the floor and told of how they had come to town seeking work. They counted themselves fortunate to have any income.

When I asked if they owned a diamond, they laughed at the idea of such an extravaganza. They found basic medical care very difficult to finance. They were paid by the number of diamonds they cut per day and had to work very long hours in order to get enough money to survive. The average pay for polishing the top part of a diamond, was 2 rupees, less than 8 US cents in 1992. The smaller diamonds, needing the keenest eyes, were often given to the youngest child worker. If they were very lucky, they might make $15-20 a week. This is below the Indian income tax level. A few favoured cutters might manage over $30.

Most of the cutters were not protected by India's Factory Act. Since this Act applied only to workplaces employing more than 9 workers, many owners saved costs by registering every pair of ghantis as a 'workplace', no matter how many pairs there were in their workshop, thus ensuring that no 'workplace' had more than 9 workers. This deprived the workers of the benefits of the State Provident Scheme. This meant if they lost their job or fell ill, they were immediately in enormous financial difficulty. Kuber, the Bombay correspondent for the diamond industry magazine, 'Diamant', starkly described their fate if they were laid off, 'They and their families are facing virtual starvation.'

There was likewise no enforcement of the Child Labour Act. During periods of diamond sale booms, or 'brens' as the trade calls them, tens of thousands of children were enticed from the countryside by recruitors or even relatives, abandoning school and parents for relatively good income. But, whenever De Beers ordained a cutback in 'Indian goods' or a recession came, they were quickly sacked. The use of child labour has been well known within the industry for many years. It was reported by David Koskoff in his 'The Diamond World' in 1981. Kantilal Chhotalal mentioned it in his authorative study of the Indian industry - yet nothing has been done about it. v

Instead the number of children employed in recent years has been rapidly expanding. In the late 1980s about 11 per cent of the diamond cutting workforce were below age. By 1994 the number had grown alarmingly to about 16 per cent, about 64,000 children. In Surat 18 percent of the diamond workforce were underage had in 1994, well above the national average. These children are especially vulnerable to exploitation since they live away from their families. An orange robed swami I met in Delhi who was campaigning for the rights of the workes against virtual slave practices, explained that many diamond workers were in debt bondage, trapped into working for whatever an employer chose to pay. The diamond cutters in Surat confirmed this when they told me of the debt trap into which most of them fell. When they started work as children for the diamond workshops, it was very important to them that they managed to return at least once a year to their families for village religious festivities. The only way most could do this was by borrowing money from their employers for the trip. The terms of the loan would be that they had to work for the lender until the loan was paid off. This often turned out to be impossible with the low wages - so the end result was that they were virtually enslaved to an employer in 'debt bondage'.

I watched the children work. The tiny size of the diamonds meant they could only touch the grinding wheel deftly for a micro second at a time lest it be ground away. Then they would swoop the diamond up to their eye, look at it through a magnifying glass, drop it onto the wheel again. It seemed to me wrong that large cut diamonds are worth vastly more than tiny cut diamonds. The skill required and the repetitive strain incurred, seemed much greater for these tiny specks of stones. Each had to have 17 facets carved in it if it were a 'single cut', 58 facets if it were a 'full cut.'

All the diamond cutting workshops had secure glass fronted or barred offices from where the cutters were issued the uncut diamonds and where records were kept of the size of the diamond before and after cutting. Often the poorer stones only yielded a gem of a tenth of the weight of the rough stone. The poor quality of the stones sent for cutting in India is such that on average 72 to 85 per cent is ground away. The dust from the diamonds had turned grey the walls and floors of some cutting shops. It presumably did the same to the workers' lungs. Cutters in America, Europe or Israel were less likely to be affected by dust as they were given by the CSO a better class of diamond.

Cutting diamonds is not safe. Diamond cutting is listed in the top 10 'hazardous industries' by the Indian government and the employment of children under 15 is banned for this reason. vi The diamond grinding wheels or 'scaifes', are rubbed with kerosene oil impregnated with the diamond dust needed to grind diamonds. The diamonds being cut are mounted on a small metal tool known as a tang. As diamonds are ground, fine dust sprays out. Only in one Bombay factory did I see an attempt made to capture the diamond dust to protect the lungs of the cutters.

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