Pakistan: Diamonds in the rough

Paltry wages and dangerous conditions are the norm for the bangle-makers of Hyderabad. Gareth Chadwick reports
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A traditional form of jewellery and decorative dress, Asian bangles are an internationally popular fashion accessory. The colourful bracelets are generally made of precious and non-precious metals, plastic, wood and glass, and decorated with precious or semi-precious stones.

The Pakistani city of Hyderabad, on the banks of the River Indus in Sindh province, is the largest bangle producer in the world. The industry employs almost 900,000 people. But the size of the industry and the colour and beauty of the bangles belies the true cost of their production.

Packed into the narrow lanes of Hyderabad's Chori Para district, rows of tin huts extend into the distance, housing hundreds of labourers working over primitive furnaces with little provision for hygiene or safety. Working in extreme heat using antiquated tools, men with only dirty rags to protect their hands clutch iron rods dripping molten glass, hurrying amid their co-workers to transport it while still hot. Clouds of toxic chemicals hang in the air. Unsurprisingly, ill health and respiratory conditions are rife .

Working for very low wages, typically less than US$0.07 a day, the bangle-makers are nevertheless expected to buy their own equipment and materials. The majority of the manufacturing process takes place in the factory itself, but finishing touches such as straightening, soldering joints, and decorating are completed in homes, often by girls as young as eight who frequently work around the clock.

Home for many is nothing more than a sparse, shared room. In Chori Para, an average 15 to 20 people dwell in each house. Regina, 28, lives with her family in a single room, where she also works as a "dipper" – dipping plastic bangles into tins of paint.

She explains: "A basket of bangles takes me half an hour to paint and I make between two and 3 rupees [2p] for a basketful. I start at 8am and work throughout the day. I never finish until about 11pm."

Regina has five children, four of whom are in full-time education. Her husband Siddiq is employed in a workshop on the other side of the district. When school finishes in the afternoons, the older children help their mother with her work.

In January of this year, ActionAid launched a project in Hyderabad to provide health and safety training, clean and safe day care centres for young children, and cooperatives to increase women's economic power.

The situation appears to be improving, the charity says. The home-workers enjoy the cooperatives, which afford them the opportunity to be part of a community. Some women bring their work to the cooperative centres, and benefit from the support of leadership circles and study groups.