The stories are undeniably heartbreaking. Yang Renping, 41 of two children, coughs continuously and walks only weakly. He’s suffering from silicosis, a lung disease caused by 12-hour days cutting gemstones and beads in a Shenzhen factory. His 200,000 yuan (US$25,000) compensation was spent on lawyer’s fees and medical bills. “I am just waiting to die,” he told The Sunday Times in Hong Kong. “The doctors cannot cure my disease. They can only control the condition.”

Another cutter, Deng Wenping, received 230,000 yuan ($29,000) from his former employer. But by the time he died, most had been spent on medical care, lawyer’s fees, and paying off debt, according to a report in the China Labour Bulletin Prior to the settlement, Deng, his wife, and two children had been forced to sell their home and move in with Deng’s older sister. After his death, his children were able to continue their schooling only through the support of a Hong Kong charity, while his widow struggled to find work.

Lucky Gems’ cutting factory in Guangdong Province. Photo courtesy of the Hong Kong Gem Manufacturers Association

And Deng and Yang are two of the lucky ones. According to labor rights groups, thousands of other workers have not even received these meager levels of compensation, thanks to Kafkaesque laws and corruption that prevent impoverished workers from getting past even the first step in the compensation process.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Silicosis is a disease caused by breathing dust containing microscopic particles of crystalline silica, which damage the lungs. The resulting scar tissue impairs breathing and makes it difficult for the lungs to extract sufficient oxygen from the air. Symptoms may not appear for more than a decade, depending on the exposure, but once they do, the disease can be severely disabling or fatal. Once it develops, silicosis is incurable. Silicosis is a problem worldwide in industries that generate significant amounts of silica dust, such as mining, construction, road building, glass manufacturing, and stone cutting. It can be prevented, however, with appropriate ventilation and personal safety equipment. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that approximately one million workers are exposed to crystalline silica each year, resulting in 250 deaths from silicosis.

In China, however, rapid economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s frequently came at the expense of labor. As the country became an international center for gem and bead cutting, Chinese laborers often found themselves working in factories with inadequate ventilation and little or no personal safety equipment. The result has been a huge surge in silicosis and other lung diseases.

Nationally, China reports 580,000 cases of occupational pneumoconiosis — a category that includes silicosis and other lung diseases caused by long-term inhalation of dust — since the country began tracking occupational disease in the 1950s. Of those, there have been 140,000 deaths. Some 200 million workers are employed in workplaces prone to occupational disease, and in July 2005, only an estimated 20 percent had taken preventative measures, China’s People’s Daily Online reported. In Guangdong Province, the center of the gem and bead cutting industry, official figures put the number of cases at 15,000, with 5,000 deaths, although it’s unclear whether those figures include migrant workers, who make up a large chunk of Guangdong’s work force.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Hardly anyone denies that China’s gem and bead cutting factories have contributed to the national epidemic of silicosis cases, or that dangerous working conditions were widespread in China’s stone-cutting factories during the 1990s. What is less clear is whether or not the Chinese cutting industry is adequately addressing the issue today, and what should be done about those workers who have been irreparably, and in many cases fatally, harmed by the earlier conditions.

“We have identified over 300 cases [of silicosis caused by stone cutting] in the past three years, and only a few of them have gotten compensation,” says Suki Chung of Labour Action China, who notes that the actual number of cases may be ten times higher. “Compensation is the most urgent part for the workers, for without compensation they can’t take medication and their lives are numbered. Most may only have three to five more years.”

Yang Renping

But compensation has been slow in coming. “There are many obstacles in the legal process for compensation,” says Chung. “If a worker wants to take legal action to sue their employer, first they have to get a diagnosis from the authorized hospital in their workplace, but many hospitals were bribed, so many victims cannot get a genuine diagnosis from the hospital.” Even if the initial hurdle is cleared, some employers refused to release the employee’s work history, a requirement for a certificate of injury from the local government, which is needed to bring legal action.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Even when claims are successfully made, factory owners have been known to avoid payment by closing down the company and reopening under another name elsewhere, Chung says. “Factory owners have denied legal responsibility, and have [avoided payments] by relocating factories, changing the names and arguing that [the new company] should not be accountable to former workers.”

Not so, says Lucky Gems, one of the companies Labor Action China charges with avoiding its compensation obligations. “We have offered adequate compensations to them according to all the laws related and even more,” Akei Fung of Lucky Gems said in a written statement. (Chung says, though, that the company has offered compensation to just 10 workers, out of more than 200 cases that have been identified.)

Labor activists may also have overstated the number of affected gem and bead industry workers, says Richard Szeto of the Hong Kong Gem Manufacturers Association. “There is no formal statistical survey on the number of infected workers,” he says. “The association is planning to launch a survey to study the issue in detail. Meanwhile, the stated ‘thousands of new cases per year’ is only a guess without figures backing it up. The new cases may arise from local factories with less investment in equipment.”

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Besides, manufacturers argue, the conditions that produced those cases are a thing of the past, at least at large companies. “In the 1970s, some gemstone manufacturers from Hong Kong moved their production lines to mainland China, mainly in Guangdong Province. At that time, the factories were small, and the conditions were poor. Most of the silicosis cases found nowadays can date back their working history in this kind of factory,” says Szeto. “[Today], the majority of Hong Kong invested factories have first-class facilities, with modern healthcare equipment and precaution procedures.”

Hong Kong manufacturers say that conditions have vastly improved since the 1990s. Workers in Fal Po Gems Manufacturing Co.; photos courtesy of the Hong Kong Gem Manufacturers Association.

“We have been making great efforts to improve the working environment,” says Fung, noting the company has sought to use improved machinery and manufacturing procedures to ensure safe conditions. “We have also been stressing safety training to increase employees’ knowledge and awareness of safety [procedures], and have been periodically offering personal protection articles such as masks and earplugs. We have also invited environmental experts from the government to help us to improve continuously.”

Conditions have improved in many places, agrees Russ Nobbs of Rings ‘N Things, who has visited a number of cutting workshops while on buying trips in China, most recently in March. “In the crudest workshop I’ve been in, where the owner actually does some of the cutting himself and works on the same equipment as the rest of [the employees], there was no ventilation sucking air away from the machines, but they were all running wet. There wasn’t a big spray in the air, so I’m not sure how much of an issue silicosis is in that kind of situation. In places where they’re dry buffing [the amounts of dust can be] terrible, but they had in place good ventilation sucking air away from employees, with vents coming right down to each individual workstation. Most were wearing dust masks the day I was there.”

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Even the industry’s most vociferous critics admit that workplace conditions have improved in Chinese cutting factories. “In general the working environment has improved,” concedes Chung. “They have installed a ventilation system and provide basic personal protective equipment, including gloves and masks, for employees.”

But that doesn’t mean conditions are good, activists argue, and it doesn’t excuse past sins. “Silicosis will continue to happen, because of the long working hours in the factory,” says Chung. “The ventilation system and the protective equipment can only extend the problem. The workers may still contract silicosis, but the symptoms will only appear after 10 or 15 years.”

Workers in Fal Po Gems Manufacturing Co.; photos courtesy of the Hong Kong Gem Manufacturers Association.

Chris Prussing, an Alaskan bead shop owner who’s become an activist on the silicosis issue, says that the masks she saw on workers in a photo Nobbs took in China are not sufficient for the type of particulate generated in cutting factories. “They seem to be wearing masks that look more like hospital masks, which are used for keeping moisture and bacteria from contaminating a surface,” she says. “They offer no protection from dust.”

Ganoksin is sponsored by

As a result, activists vow to keep up the pressure on Hong Kong companies. To that end, they’ve held press conferences at Basel the last two years, calling on show organizers to ban the six companies identified by Labour Action China as offenders. They are also calling on international jewelry industry associations to set up compensation funds to help silicosis victims, and for the Chinese government to take action to better protect workers.

Others in the industry agree that attention should continue to be paid to these issues but say the options available to the international community are somewhat limited. “All these cases hark back a few years ago, and the factories accused have closed or moved, hopefully to better facilities,” says Ya’akov Almor, a spokesperson for the World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO). “CIBJO will continue to follow the issue closely and has no qualms about bringing it up. But there is no way CIBJO can police the trade. It does not have the power to police the trade.”

In addition, campaign organizers have offered no real alternatives. Although Labour Action China Gemstone Campaign identifies the six offenders on its Web site, wwwjewelrycampaign.net/eng, it offers no recommendations for other sources. “There are some regulated factories, where we have not found any silicosis cases, but even in good factories, the working environment may not necessarily be good, with long working hours without overtime pay and no health insurance,” says Chung. “Basic labor problems are still a very common phenomenon in South China.”

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Prussing has pressed U.S. companies who buy beads from China to contribute toward the cost of caring for silicosis victims. “I would like to see a public statement that ‘X’ percent of our sales of this product are going to the relief of silicosis victims,” she says. “It’s one thing to work for better conditions in the factory in the future, but there is a large number of people out there right now who are dying from silicosis and they have to be helped. If people directly involved in the trade can’t help them, who can?”

Unfortunately, the one charity she has identified, the Hong Kong Zigen Fund, is a volunteer-run organization that lacks the capability to accept donations in any form except bank-to-bank wire transfer. Prussing is working with the group to arrange another method of donation, but at press time no alternative to wire transfers had been established. The U.S.-based contact for the group did not respond to a request for an interview.

In light of these problems, the best thing bead buyers can do may be simply to keep asking about worker welfare. “Bead buyers can say to me, the bead distributor, please encourage the people you’re working with to be as safe as they can,” says Nobbs. “And another thing that would help is to figure out what are the right tools to use. I would personally love to be given a list of what masks do [the job], and then I can give that to factory owners and say, ‘here are the masks, available from this source in Hong Kong and Guangdong, that will help this situation in this factory.’ I would hand that out.

“But the whole level of threatening a boycott is a little weird,” he concludes. “Because if a boycott really worked and all of us quit buying from these factories, what you’d do is put out of work thousands of people, or we’d drive it into people’s homes.”