In the 1700s, the Germans called it “cutters’ disease” because it resulted from breathing the dust in gem-cutting mills. But silicosis didn’t become an epidemic until the development of holding ponds at the wheelhouses in the mid-19th century, which allowed for longer working hours. The number of German cutters stricken with the condition, as well as tuberculosis, nearly doubled, and life expectancies were half the national average. The government finally imposed a health regulation on the gem-cutting industry, the first ever.
Now it’s China’s turn. The China Labour Bulletin, a nongovernmental organization that monitors labor conditions in China, published a report in August 2005 describing a silicosis epidemic among Guangdong jewelry workers. Titled “Deadly Dust,” the report called China’s occupational-illness prevention and compensation system “defective.”
When grinding rock crystal, amethyst, citrine, and numerous other gem silicates, silicon dioxide (SiO2) becomes silica dust. Breathing silica dust over a long period leads to silicosis, a chronic, incurable lung disease. Generic symptoms include shortness of breath and chronic dry cough.
Silicosis from gem cutting and black lung disease from coal mining are the two most prevalent occupational illnesses in China today, accounting for 80 percent of cases overall. According to the CLB report, since the 1950s, there have been approximately 580,000 cases of silicosis in China. The World Health Organization notes that between 1991 and 1995, China recorded more than 24,000 related deaths per year from silicosis. It is also reported that the current number of sufferers is 440,000.
In “Deadly Dust,” the CLB blames local officials for the lack of care given to silicosis victims, and says it appears to be “a result of collusion between business interests, local government, hospitals, and the courts.”
“There has been widespread failure of local governmental and judicial authorities in Guangdong Province to apply and enforce existing labor protection laws and regulations, specifically those providing for access to compensation for occupational illness and injury.”
After the English translation of “Deadly Dust” reached Gaetano Cavalieri, president of CIBJO, the World Jewellery Confederation, in December 2005, he immediately called on foreign and Hong Kong companies who operate gemstone cutting or jewelry manufacturing operations in China—particularly those in the Guangdong region—to investigate the silicosis epidemic.
“In Hong Kong, I met with CLB representatives who presented me with an outline of the report’s content,” Cavalieri said in a statement. “Judging by the evidence that these NGO representatives presented, I feel that it is imperative that our organization takes a crystal clear position in this matter.”
CIBJO’s statement says that during visits to China and discussions with Chinese industry and government representatives, Cavalieri has pressed the issue of improving the labor and health conditions in China’s gem and jewelry industry. The statement went on to say that Cavalieri would continue to do so until the problem is addressed by the industry and by Chinese authorities. “Addressing issues of this nature lies at the core of CIBJO’s purpose,” Cavalieri said.
To read the English translation of “Deadly Dust,” visit www.clb.org.hk.