ring
credit: weddingbee.com

I’ve always said if someone proposes to me with a diamond ring then the answer would have to be no. It would show that the person doesn’t know me at all.

2 reasons:

  1. For me, a diamond represents capitalism at its worse. Diamonds are bought relatively cheaply from the mines, and it isn’t until they are cut that they are worth so much. And where do diamonds get cut? Generally, in the West. So, as is classic with capitalist markets, the people working to get the product are paid next to nothing, the West buys it cheap then sells it for huge profit, making a few wealthy people in the West richer and richer whilst people in the mines have a daily struggle to survive.
  2. Then comes the slavery. Many of us have seen ‘Blood Diamond,’ a fiction film which explores the world of the diamond mines in Sierra Leone. It deals with very real and very serious issues. Blood diamond workers, also known as conflict diamonds workers, are slaves who work in diamond mines in areas which are controlled by rebel forces, who are against the legitimate government. The profits made from selling the diamonds goes towards weaponry and furthering their agenda of war, therefore leading to wide spread bloodshed. What’s more the conditions for slaves in mines are horrific. Many are kidnapped and tortured, beaten, raped, drugged and murdered. Many children are enslaved to dig for diamonds, particularly in African countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and the Republic of Congo. According to the World Bank and the United Nations approximately 3 million people have died in relation to conflict diamond mining. To me it seems gross that a man, woman or child has bled, sweat and despaired over the sparkly gem that so many of treasure on our finger. Seems weird that it’s a symbol for love and commitment as the classic engagement ring.

So. I was surprised on a recent flight from Brussels to Madrid when I got chatting to the man next to me. We spoke about society, environment and politics and we had had similar views on a lot of things. He was educated and seemed kind and concerned about equality. After a while, he mentioned that he is a gemmologist, and sources diamonds for European companies..

‘Oh.’ I said. ‘How do you find a place for your social and political beliefs in an industry that’s so heavily linked to slavery and the abuse of the developing world by the west?’

Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but I do like to jump straight in…

Juan took it in his stride and smiled thoughtfully. ‘I guess they never made a Hollywood film about your iPhone?’

He had a point.

You see iPhones (all smartphones and laptops in fact) contain a mineral called coltan. Meanwhile, in the last 20 years, 7 million people have died in a civil war in the democratic republic of Congo. Today, members of rebel forces as well as corrupt government soldiers enslave children in the Congo to mine minerals essential to smartphones and other technology. (Huffington Post)

With Apple, it doesn’t end there. Once the raw materials reach Asia to be processed in factories the workers’ rights are just as disgusting. Apple uses a Foxconn plant, a factory which has been described as a ‘labour camp’ by local media. Here, so many workers were trying to commit suicide by jumping out of windows, that the factory responded by putting up suicide nets to catch them as they fell. Instead of reducing working hours that are 3 times the working limit or raising pitiful wages. Workers often sleep on factory floors and never get to see the sky. But we very rarely criticise Apple for that disgusting treatment of workers, even though the CEO Tim Cook has received $570 million worth of stocks in a single year alone. (Huffington Post)(Telegraph)

Then there’s your clothes. How many were made in sweat shops? I for one don’t know where all my clothes have come from. The convenience of cheap clothes off the high street is hugely integrated into my lifestyle.

Next? Food. King prawns are hugely linked to slavery. A recent guardian investigation found that supermarkets such as Tesco, Walmart, Carrefour and Costco has sourced Cheap Thai ‘king’ prawns which have been supplied by the work of violent slave labour. (Guardian)

Juan pointed out that though he condemned any slavery within the diamond industry, and elsewhere, that I was unable to criticise his choice to work in the diamond industry whilst I owned an iPhone and ate many common types of food, and shopped in many high street stores. Sadly, slavery is as integrated into human lifestyle now than it has ever been.

In fact, slaves are cheaper now than they have ever been. We can work this out by comparing the price of a slave to the price of land, grain and livestock throughout human history. Slavery is illegal in every country in the world but there are currently more slaves right now than there were in the entire history of the transatlantic slavery. (BBC) This can be through human trafficking and sex slavery, domestic labour, and people who are tricked into ‘jobs’ in farms or factories and then are not paid or permitted to leave.

Do you ever get your car cleaned at a hand car wash? Did you wonder why it costs only 4 pounds when you have up to 5 people simultaneously working on your car? And they’re mostly foreign, right? Passports stolen, without papers or with family threatened back home, they may not have another option.

Juan explained to me that in his professional opinion the diamond industry has evolved positively in recent years. With the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia all the biggest companies agreed to monitor and create policy for the rough diamond buying process. They now evaluate possible human rights violations to try and ensure companies aren’t involved in illegal activity such as money laundering. He told me that around 95% of diamond dealers and companies now completely refuse to work with blood diamonds. If they do, they are subject to strict international policy. This process is called the Kimberley process and you can read more about it here.

He thinks that the industry has a bad name due to Hollywood blockbusters like Blood Diamond and although it is never acceptable, there are so many industries in the modern world that violate human, animal and environmental rights. Industries such as the pharmaceutical, food, wood, mineral and textile industries have all got a lot to answer for. Juan tries to work within the second-hand market which gives him more peace of mind, and when he buys and sells within this market he feels he is contributing to create new jewels, meaning more jobs and good business for colleagues.

The conversation gave me a lot to think about, as I have always been so very anti-diamond, whilst checking my emails on an iPhone and popping to high street shops to cheaply update my wardrobe. Clearly, slavery is deeply integrated into modern society and we must do more to try and tackle this. Will it come down to governments tightening restrictions for big companies, or consumer choices forcing unethical companies out of business?

I suspect a balance between the two must be found. If you would like to know how many slaves are involved with your life you can do a quiz on slavery footprint, where you fill in some information about things your diet/lifestyle and it calculates how many slaves are working for you. Check it out here.

Currently, I’m feeling overwhelmed by all this information! If you have any ideas on how to reduce the slavery involved in your lifestyle, please write a comment on Facebook or below!

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