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Much of the inexpensive jewelry in US malls features polished “agate” stones, which are leaving a trail of death in India.
building factories here and in other locations across the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, agate traders buy raw stones and supply them to so-called artisans who chip them to size, cut and grind them into shape and polish them to a smooth, shiny glow.
Exporters boast of modern manufacturing methods on their websites, or on business-to-business portals like Alibaba.com. But most, if not all of them, use this ancient system of outsourcing.
This enables them to avoid implementing safety standards that would be required under Indian law if they located their equipment under one roof and hired their workers under contract, according to Jagdish Patel, the occupational safety expert who founded PTRC in 1992.
It’s a stretch to call these laborers self-employed. PTRC's survey of nearly 5,000 agate workers found that three-quarters do not own the machines they use. Fewer than one percent buy their raw stones or sell the finished agate. And many take advance payment, or “baki,” that effectively leaves them in thrall to an agate trader, even though all forms of bonded labor are illegal in India.
“Self-employment in agate work is a deceit,” Sudarshan Iyengar, vice chancellor of Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Vidyapith University wrote in a monograph to the PTRC study.
The result is disastrous.
To make agate grinding and polishing safe, manufacturers need to use a combination of water and suction to knock down the deadly silica dust and prevent workers from breathing it.
Because Khambhat's workers are paid a piece rate that averages about $1 a day, they're unable to buy basic safety gear, such as a dust mask. The margins are so thin that even middlemen who employ five or six workers cannot afford the electricity for water pumps and exhaust systems.
“The relationship between traders and workers is temporary,” said Khushman Patel, secretary of an area traders' organization called the Cambay Agate Association. “But we have made some recommendations to the workers about safety.”
According to the agate trader, it is hard to find workers today. “Even the poor send their kids to school and you can't find unskilled laborers,” he said. As a result, local firms are shifting away from products such as rosary beads that require a lot of grinding — the most dangerous process — to more natural shapes that can be created by chipping and polishing.
Throughout Khambhat, however, workers still grind stones into beads by the hundreds of thousands, by pressing them against a clattering vertical wheel that produces a cloud of silica dust. Sometimes they work without even a bandana over their mouths for protection.
Conducting a house-to-house survey in 2010, PTRC 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.
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.
“My whole family is doing this work,” one of the women said, desperately. “Do something for us.”
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. (The secretary of the Cambay Agate Association and the PTRC activist are not related; Patel is a common surname here).
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).
Only after a damning 2010 report on silicosis in the