Death by Diamonds: Suicides Wipe the Shine off India’s Gem Trade
After polishing diamonds destined for luxury stores from New York to Hong Kong for nearly 10 hours in a cramped workshop in western India, Vikram Raujibhai went home, waited for his family to leave, and locked the front door.
His family returned to find the 29-year-old's charred body, his case the latest in a series among workers with low wages and poor working conditions in India's booming diamond industry, as uncovered by a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation.
Investigations spread over a year in the western Indian state of Gujarat found a pattern of suicides – many shrouded in silence – in the industry that cuts and polishes 90 percent of gems sold globally, with many workers paid per stone.
A few workers in the industry earn fixed wages – some even up to Rs 1 lakh or more a month – but over 80 percent of the total workforce earn a piece rate of 1 to 25 rupees for each stone they polish, and have no social benefits.
Interviews with diamond unit owners, brokers, labour groups, families and the police revealed nine suicides since last November in the city of Surat, a hub for the trade, and the Saurashtra region where the workers are from.
But experts said this was likely to be just the tip of the iceberg in India, where industry figures show diamond exports surged 70 percent in the past decade, with no mandatory certification to ensure diamond processing is labour-abuse free.
Families are reluctant to blame the diamond business, which employs over 1.5 million men – mainly from drought-prone parts of Saurashtra – for fear of losing work, with few other options.
Raujibhai’s mother Wasanben is still coming to terms with the death of her son, the sole breadwinner after her husband, also a diamond polisher, died a decade ago of a heart attack.
Sitting outside the soot-layered room in a slum in Bhavnagar town in Saurashtra, Wasanben said her son was worried about mounting expenses and being unable to find love and marry.
The skills of Indian polishers, after generations in the industry, and low labour costs ensure major mining firms from De Beers – the world's largest diamond producer by value – to Russia's Alrosa get raw diamonds processed in India.
When asked about worker suicides, De Beers – of the Anglo American Plc Group – the world's second biggest mining company Rio Tinto, and Russia's Alrosa said they had not encountered any cases in firms to which they sell rough diamonds.
Government officials said workers were paid well and the industry is "positive", setting up schools, hospitals and giving jobs to relatives of workers who died or committed suicide.
But campaigners said while most big firms have air-conditioned workshops and fixed wages, many smaller outfits have no toilets or ventilation and workers live, eat and sleep in the workshops in slave-like conditions.
Rough diamonds imported to India must be certified 'conflict-free' by the Kimberley Process scheme to ensure they have not been used to fund civil wars and are free of human rights abuse, not so-called "blood diamonds". KP members account for about 99.8 percent of global production of rough diamonds.
But certification of cut and polished diamonds given by the global non-profit Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) is optional.
Only about 90 firms from about 15,000 big and small diamond companies in Gujarat are certified RJC members. About 30 are authorised buyers of rough diamonds from De Beers that binds them to follow a set of labour rules.
But no one is pushing companies for certification of processed diamonds.
But campaigners are concerned about the welfare of workers paid by stone and with no social benefits, who often take on debt to feed and educate their families.
"The business has grown, there is better technology ... but only about 25 percent of workers earn enough to sustain themselves," said Gautam Kanani, commerce professor at Surat's JD Gabani Commerce College who studied the industry in 2007.
For some diamond workers the consequences can be fatal. Stories of suicides gleaned from police files show a pattern - a seemingly untroubled worker suddenly killing himself.
The highest number of more than 5,000 suicides reported in Surat city since 2010 were in areas where diamond workers live, police data the Surat police shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation shows.
Police officer Ashish Dodiya this year investigated the suicides of two diamond workers in their early twenties who drank poison.
Bharatbhai Jatharbhai Bhammar, 22, moved to Surat three years ago and lived in the workshop where he polished diamonds. He was at work when he drank poison in April this year.
The other suicide victim, Rajeshbhai Makwana, had been polishing diamonds in Surat for six years and made about 13,000 rupees a month. He ended his life after an argument with his wife in February this year.
"He had no problems," Makwana's brother Santosh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Dodiya dismissed a link between the deaths and work in the cases he investigated.
Other police officers stationed in the area where diamond workers live in Surat did see a link between the suicide cases they investigated and diamond work.
"(The workers) take loans and are never able to repay them. We get such cases (suicides) when the (global) demand for diamonds drops and employers do not pay them," said Rameshbhai Gulabrao, who investigated two worker suicides this year.
Some workers said they go without wages for at least two months every year when business is slow and they have to borrow money to make ends meet.
"He worked with big diamonds and earned a fixed monthly salary of around 10,000 rupees. This is good money in Surat," said Kansara's younger brother Vatsal.
"He was good at studies. He studied up to 12th grade and was planning to go to college. He didn't want to polish diamonds."
'Slavery and Suppression'
Ramesh Ziliriya, who set up a diamond labour association in Rajkot in 2013 to protect workers rights, said while debt bondage and child labour may be a thing of the past in the diamond industry, "slavery and suppression continues".
"Workers do not protest their low wages as they fear losing their jobs," the former gem polisher said.
The Ratna Kalakar Vikas Sangh - a welfare body of diamond workers in Surat - recorded nearly 2,000 labour disputes between 2016 and 2017, mainly involving workers being laid off.
He said the precarious nature of the industry can be difficult for workers, with diamonds competing in the luxury goods market with designer bags, cars and cruises, and any drop in demand having a knock-on effect on workers' wages.
About a decade ago, economist Indira Hirway found 50 suicides of diamond workers in Surat during the 2008 global recession as workshops shut down and workers were laid off.
Labour unions said up to 300 workers killed themselves then and the suicides continue today, but families are reluctant to link the deaths to their relatives' working lives.
"Diamond workers don't complain as they get these jobs often from someone within the family or the community. Most of them are school dropouts," said Indira Hirway, who led a UNDP study on the 2008 recession's impact on diamond workers.
"That is the way globalisation is working in India where traders and exporters make huge money, but people at the bottom get low wages and are exploited badly," said Hirway, director at Centre for Development Alternatives in Ahmedabad.
At the Sri Diamond Worker Union in Surat, Mukeshbhai Waljibhai Kanjaria sifts through the letters he has written to state authorities about the problems diamond workers face.
Kanjaria said workers lack social benefits that other factory workers get, like pensions and subsidised medical care.
But labour officials in Gujarat said diamond industry workers earn more than the minimum wage of 8,300 rupees a month.
"They are not interested in social security as it involves paperwork and both workers and their employers are in most cases illiterate," said Ashish Gandhi, assistant labour commissioner.
"Whenever there is fluctuation (in demand) and downsizing, they face problems, but (their welfare) depends on the philosophy of the employer."
Some workers do break away from polishing to start their own businesses, but few manage to advance up the ladder, with many adding to mounting debt by going to local money lenders.
Bharatbhai Rathod worked as a diamond polisher in Bhavnagar for almost 15 years before deciding to start his own unit.
His business was short-lived.
“We found later he had taken a loan for raw material (rough diamonds) and was being threatened," Shobhaben said, smarting tears as she plucked cotton.
On a sweltering afternoon in Surat, scores of men sat on the footpath of a bustling street, cradling on their laps blue trays spattered with diamonds like grains of sand that they picked and checked through tiny magnifying glasses.
Mahidharpura is Surat's gem trading hub, where businessmen sell rough diamonds bought from mining companies in Africa, Israel and Belgium to owners of the factories where they are cut and polished before being sold on to jewellery manufacturers.
Diamonds processed in Surat are sold to jewellery makers in a bazaar, but nearly 90 percent are couriered to one of the world's largest diamond bourses in Mumbai, and then exported.
Behind the seemingly transparent trade in diamonds are layers of complex transactions that mean workers are often clueless about the real worth and destination of diamonds.
Ashish Dansangh Bawalwa, 35, had been polishing diamonds for 12 years when he noticed a currency symbol on the little paper pouch containing the diamonds he was polishing.
"It was a dollar sign. That day I realised we were being paid in rupees to polish diamonds sold in dollars," said Bawalwa, who left Surat as he was unable to sustain his family.
Dinesh Navadia of the Gems and Jewellery Export Council said most firms took care of the education of their employees' children and offered subsidised medical care.
Asked about the spate of worker suicides, he acknowledged there was a problem, linking it to poor productivity cutting wages and workers struggling in an expensive city like Surat.
"But diamond companies give jobs to wives of workers or their children (after their death)," he said. "This is a positive industry."
Jean-Marc Lieberherr, head of the Belgium-based Diamond Producers Association which aims to encourage best practice in the industry, said major mining companies were making a real effort to ensure workers were not exploited.
But he said it was an uphill task to directly monitor the thousands of workers across Gujarat with many workshops in remote, isolated areas.
Similarly, Rio Tinto - the founding member of RJC - has standards for best practices in business that include labour safety norms, while Alrosa has alliance guidelines to protect labour rights for companies who buy raw diamonds from them, their respective spokesmen said.
Canada-based mining company Lucara is RJC certified and sells rough diamonds through tenders and performs checks on all its clients, a spokesman said.
Jewellery manufacturing major Chow Tai Fook - that most Indian diamond polishing units supply diamonds to - said it buys gems only from those companies that comply with norms set by De Beers and the RJC.
Most workers the Thomson Reuters Foundation met, even the handful on fixed wages, were determined that their children would not join the diamond industry.
"There is no growth in diamonds. A man will never be able to do anything in life," she said.
(Published in an arrangement with the Thomson Reuters Foundation)