Diamonds Are Not Forever For Workers in Gujarat

Diamonds have indeed been forever for a large number of people in Gujarat, as about 80% of the diamond cutting and polishing industry of India is carried out in Gujarat. Surat is often known as the“diamond city of Indiaâ€. Raw diamonds are imported from abroad and 75–80% of the cut and polished diamonds are exported, mainly to Europe and North America. Much of the diamond trade is controlled by a handful of wealthy families. A workforce of more than 8,00,000 (8 lakhs) people cut and polish diamonds in a hodgepodge of ‘cottage industry’ style sweatshops and cutting houses. The average cutting-house employs 50 to 200 workers. Over 12% of the value of India’s commodity exports is contributed by diamonds alone.

Diamond Workers In Surat
Diamond Workers In Surat

Naturally, the global economic crisis of 2008–09 hit the industry very hard. The over 1000 year-old diamond industry lost its sparkle for lakhs of workers, many of whom were migrants from West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. According to a study [Hirway, 2009] about 45% workers lost their jobs and only about one-third of them could find alternate employment. Workers had to move from skilled to unskilled jobs and from regular to casual work. Wages and monthly income fell by about 50%. Workers received little or no assistance from their employers or the government and had to rely on friends and relatives for their survival. They first sold their assets or borrowed at high interest rates and finally 80% of the households reduced their food consumption, 84% reduced education expenditure by withdrawing children (mainly girls) from school and 66% households stopped going for medical services to reduce health expenses. About 25 % workers, who migrated back to villages, were worse off with low employment opportunities, lower wage rates and lower incomes and facilities for their families. Despite tall claims of the government, NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) was not found effective enough to help them. There were cases of workers committing suicide or turning to crime to sustain themselves and their families. Women bore the major burden of the crisis. More than 66% of the households sent non-working women to the labour market, 17% for part time work and 51% for full time work. Most of these women took up whatever work was available — low productivity, low wage work — and had to face greater tension, domestic violence and depression.

Shockingly, there are no proper records of diamond units or their workers with the government. There are more than 7,000-10,000 diamond cutting units. Through an order of the Gujarat High Court, they are all covered by the Factories Act, however only about 600 units are registered under the Factories Act. The main reason for this is that the producers do not want to give workers benefits of social protection and do not want their working conditions regulated by the government. Diamond workers working in the same field for years on end do not get statutory rights and benefits like provident fund, gratuity or casual leave. An ordinary diamond worker gets Rs. 5,000–8,000 a month, while experts get Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 1.25 lakhs a month. The low-income group, which accounts for 80% of the total work force, was obviously the worst affected. According to Times of India, 6th January, 2009:

While Gujarat Government spelled out its industrial policy on 5 January, 2009 … no specific package has been spelled out by Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the diamond industry.

Today, with improving global markets, the diamond industry has picked up its growth once again, but no efforts have been made by the Modi government to provide social protection to workers or to ensure them a right to basic education and primary health. In a report from Business Standard, 12th Aug., 2013,

In a bid to address and safeguard the rights of diamond workers, Rajkot Diamond Workers Union, which represents over 2,00,000 diamond workers, is considering filing a public interest litigation (PIL) in Gujarat High Court. Even today, most of the diamond workers earn daily wages. Moreover, they do not get medical allowance, provident fund and other benefits as per the labour law. Despite the diamond industries doing well, wages for their workers have not been increased over the past three years, despite several representations to the Modi government.

The inaction of Modi Government towards the most genuine grievances of lakhs of workers of the diamond cutting industry who are responsible for over 12% of India’s commodity exports is appalling. These are the hands that make Gujarat shine, but there’s no one to hold their hands.