You've probably all heard of how most of the clothes and many of the household items we use in the Western world come from sweatshops in China, India, South America, and other countries.
Well, unfortunately, the same is also true for beads. While many of the lovely beads we use today come from countries or manufacturers that have good working conditions and treat their workers fairly, many, many other beads are made under hazardous working conditions, and their makers do not receive a living wage.
Such beads include most gemstone beads (much to my dismay, as I absolutely love them), which, although mined all over the world, are mostly carved in China, Hong Kong, and India, where workers work very long hours with minimal compensation and pay. In addition, carving gemstones is dirty, dusty work, and since workers are not protected from this dust, they inhale it and many develop the disease silicosis, which can be very disabling. Again, pay is minimal and there is no medical care provided, so this is a serious problem. Also, many glass beads made in China and India are made under similarly horrifying conditions with similarly horrifying consequences.
Now, the good news is that many beads are made under humane conditions. For example, Austrian crystals (Swarovski particularly) are made in factories where workers are paid fair wages, have access to company benefits, and work under safe conditions. The same goes for Japanese beads and seedbeads. Czech pressed glass beads, polished beads, and seedbeads are also relatively humanely made. While working conditions in the Czech republic are not ideal, the workers are paid fair wages, often work in their own small factories, and have at least some standards of protection.
I did not write this post to make anyone feel guilty. I just wanted to get the word out. I was not aware of these problems until someone brought them up with me, and I think the vast majority of beaders are the same way. None of us want anyone else to suffer for our craft, but most of us don't know about these problems. And, because so many of us don't know about this, alot of bead suppliers continue to purchase their beads from places that do not have fair employment factories.
As a beader, I have made a promise to myself to only buy ethically made beads, and to write to suppliers asking them to carry more such beads. This is kinda sad, because I really love gemstones -- but I hate the thought of someone else suffering to make them. I also wouldn't mind paying more for beads that are ethically made. Of course, I can't expect any other beaders (especially those whose livelihood depends on beading) to do the same, but please be aware of where your beads are coming from. Ask your suppliers where the beads are coming from and if they know what the working conditions are. Let your buyers know when you used ethically made beads -- it spreads awareness, and, hey, it's a nice little hook for you to have, too :)
This is a really widespread problem, and I think that the only way to do anything about it is to have widespread awareness, so please, be aware.
Once again, this wasn't written to make anyone feel bad or guilty or to get anyone to stop beading or to stop using a particular kind of beads, or to boycott any specific company, but just to raise awareness. What you choose to do with this information is your choice only, and it's the choice that is right for you no matter what you decide to do, but I think that greater information leads to better choices.
And, if you have any questions, feel free to post them here, or visit ethicalcrafters. The community has alot of publically available information on working conditions in many countries, as well as some stores that sell all or mostly ethically made beads.
I apologize in advance for the cross-posting, but, again, I really want to get the word out there!
Thanks for your time.