Fighting for Agate-Processing Workers in India

Agate-processing workers have achieved their first major legislative success in India’s Gujarat state—official recognition that their jobs can kill them.

Agate processors polish gemstones against a grinding wheel to produce jewelry and other ornamented items. Working at home or in small shops, agate workers often lack masks or other protective equipment to prevent inhalation of silica dust generated while cutting, shaping and polishing the stones. Acute silicosis may develop within months following massive silica exposure. Over time the disease may destroy large areas of the lung leading to respiratory failure and death. Destruction of lung tissue may continue even after the worker is no longer exposed to silica.

The state government of the Gujarat has issued official notification of a 2007 resolution specifying that the heirs of agate workers who die as a result of the occupational lung disease silicosis be compensated Rs.1 lakh (approximately $1,800) through an insurance scheme.  According to the Peoples Training and Research Center, the May 24 notification is the first policy decision in Gujarat state benefiting agate workers, especially those most at risk in the agate-polishing cottage industry. Because of their status as informal sector workers, these workers have not previously been covered by existing rules.

The majority—80 percent—of all colored gemstones sold in the global market come from artisanal, small-scale operations, with 90 percent of those stones originating in developing countries, according to the former vice president of the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA), Edward Boehm.

The People’s Training and Research Center and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), based in New Delhi, have long campaigned on behalf of workers and the on-the-job threats to their health. While this recognition is important, they say much remains to be done for workers who continue to risk disability and death due to silica exposure. The Peoples Training Center is a member of the regional occupational safety and health network, the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV), a Solidarity Center partner.

Jagdish Patel of the Peoples Training and Research Center says that the estimated number of workers exposed to dangerous work conditions in the gem trade in Khambhat, where the Center is most active, is 1,500 to 2,000 people, but that there are many more vulnerable workers in other parts of Gujarat. Patel estimates that in Jaipur—India’s largest center for colored gemstones—another 2,000 workers work in hazardous conditions.

While heartened by the initial victory, activists continue to press forward with several crucial demands: that the state back-date enforcement to the 2007 Resolution, increase the compensatory amount for heirs, provide compensation for gem workers living with silicosis and take action geared toward prevention.

Without proper safety precautions, all agate-processing workers are at high risk of developing silicosis. The Solidarity Center works with ANROEV and many of its partners on this and other health and safety concerns throughout the region.