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Women's Labourers in Gujarat's Diamond Industry

02/03/2016 15:15 GMT | Updated 02/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Gujarat is home to many of India's industries, one of which is the diamond cutting and polishing sector. Since the beginning of the twentieth century when Gujarati diamond cutters (Palanpuri Jains and Saurashtrain Patels) emigrated from East Africa to establish the industry in Gujarat, Surat has gradually become the centre of the country's diamond processing industry with 80%  to 90% of the world's diamonds passing through this state.  In Surat alone there are 500,000 diamond workers coming from Gujarat, West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. Among the regional workers who make up the diamond cutters and polishers are tribals coming from areas like Jhankhvav, Mandvi, Vankal, Ahwa, Dang and border villages of Nandurbar in Maharashtra and Vansda, to include female workers.  Tribals are now polishing £136 million worth of diamonds every year.   There are more than 7,000-10,000 diamond cutting units which, because of an order from the thee Gujarat High Court, are all covered by the Factories Act; however only approximately 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

The entry of women in to the cutting and polishing sector increased in the villages of Tapi, Surat and Dang such that women account for roughly 10% of the diamond workers. Due to a joint initiative by the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), Surat Diamond Association (SDA) and the Gems and Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC), unskilled tribal women have been trained over the past ten years for in the cutting and polishing of the precious stones.  While we know that women in western countries, such as nurses in the U.S., earn less than men in the same profession, female diamond cutters and polishers in India likewise earn significantly less than their male colleagues.    A male worker cutting and polishing diamonds of modest value earns an average monthly salary of Rs. 3,000 (£32) - Rs.4,000 (£42) while a few select workers processing larger diamonds receive wages up to Rs 40,000 (£422) per month. Women, prevented from cutting the diamonds (which earns more, hence considered a to be a "man's job"), earn roughly 62% of these male counterparts with zero representation of women in the higher ranks as there are no women employers or producers in this industry.  And when the market slows down, women are the first to be laid off.

Over the past year more than 5,000 polishers have lost their jobs as Chinese consumers are cutting back luxury purchases driving exports down 28%.  As a a result women have felt these losses even more than the men.  Institutionally it is assumed that female labour does not contribute to the household income even though in reality, tribal women are providing almost all of the household domestic labour and equally contribute to the household's fiscal demands.  During this current economic climate, just as the 2007-2008 global recession when 45% of workers lost their jobs, women's domestic work paradoxically increases when male members of the household are laid off:

About one-fourth of the total households (36 households) reported that domestic work had increased for women. This is because (i) eating-out as well buying food from outside has declined or stopped in many households, (ii) hired domestic help has been dismissed in many cases, (iii) since they cannot afford to spend much on health services, women take care of family members when they are sick (including preparing home-based medicines) (iv) men are spending more time at home, so they require more attention and (v) women try to replace products which were earlier bought in the market by home-made substitutes, (for example clothing and food). It has been reported by the households, that the average number of hours of house-work for women, has increased at by two to three hours, per day. (UNDP. 2009).

The reduction or elimination of female labourers in what is the more lucrative field of diamond polishing has resulted in: workers receiving little or no assistance from their employers or the government,  80% of the households have reduced its food consumption, 84% have cut down education expenses by withdrawing children (primarily girls) from school, and 66% of households stopped using medical services.  Additionally approximately 25% of the workers from this field who have been laid off have migrated back to their home villages and face destitution as there is likewise little to no employment in those villages. 

Ultimately, women are once again made to bear the burden of financial cut-backs as more than 66% of the households affected by the economic downturn have sent non-working women to the labour market--17% took on part time and 51% full-time work.  Women have taken up whatever labour was available which is inevitably low wage, high labour-intensive work.  As a result these women face greater economic and emotional stress, depression and even domestic violence (UNDP) with cases coming to light, such as that of a woman who was forced into prostitution by her husband who had lost his job in the diamond industry four years ago.  Sociologist, Gaurang Jani, reports, "The financial crisis and high costs of living in cities has forced people to shed the traditional values of not pushing women into flesh trade."  So where the diamond industry has slowed down in Gujarat, women pay with their bodies to recover the fiscal losses.