Jade Mining in Myanmar Poses Severe Human Rights Abuses to the Health and Safety of its Workers

By: Kathryn Sharkey

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

HPAKANT, Myanmar – If anyone has ever purchased jewelry made from jadeite, perhaps they should consider how that necklace or ring came into their possession. Jade mining in Myanmar has received little to no recognition from mass media, but even more unfortunate is the lack of recognition that its labor has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives.

Jade pickers hold onto each other while carrying large stones up steep hills where the stones will be cracked open in search of any jadeite slivers. Photo Courtesy of TIME.

Many people have died trying to make a living by searching for jade stones. Some of these individuals are children, who are forced into labor. Despite the high-risk environment, these workers desperately continue to search for jade stones to feed the billion-dollar industry. Led by China, this industry relies heavily on Myanmar mines since they have produced approximately seventy percent of the world’s jade.

These jade pickers spend hours every day and sometimes, even more dangerously, hours at night, sifting through rocks and dirt searching for “stones of heaven.” The environment and conditions under which they labor is anything but “heaven.” Precarious working conditions pose extreme risks for the jade pickers who often work on unstable, steep ground and are at severe risk of being swept away or buried by unexpected mudslides during the monsoon season. In 2020 alone, almost two hundred workers died as a result of mudslides. Amongst those lost were many child workers. Bodies are almost never recovered due to the terrain and the fact that most laborers are illegal migrants, drug addicts, and rarely thought to be persons worth finding. Some workers die due to rampant infection within mining camps, such as HIV from unsanitary needles. Nearly all of them die alone and terrified. Families of those who have died in the mines receive almost no compensation for their loss.

The industry itself is tight-lipped about labor conditions and most of Myanmar’s mines are completely closed off to unwanted visitors. Many of these mines are also run illegally and without proper licensing. Security appears to be overboard, but the Myanmar army maintains control over the jade mines. According to a senior campaigner at Global Witness, “If you keep the jade business in a black box and don’t let any information get out, it’s hard to put pressure on the people that control the industry.” The army has made sure of that.

Stones found by the workers vary in price depending on size. Most workers only make a small wage each day, but some who fail to find any stones walk away with no pay for that day. Supervisors or corporate entities profit off of larger stones, forcing jade pickers to earn little profit.

The National League for Democracy has failed the laborers, having made no effort to implement regulatory policies to help curb the devasting conditions under which vulnerable adults, and especially young children, operate in. Civil and human rights activists have been advocating for change but calls for reform are largely overlooked. The industry has remained corrupt and will likely continue to pose severe risks to the health and lives of Myanmar’s men, women, and children working there for the foreseeable future.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – ‘I feel guilty for surviving’: The deadly hunt for jade in Myanmar – 3 Aug. 2020

International Labour Organization – Child labour in Myanmar’s jade mines is a deadly gamble – 10 Jan. 2021

The Diplomat – A Deadly Gamble: Myanmar’s Jade Industry – 13 July 2020

The National News – Jade trade in Myanmar thrives on exploitation, rights abuses – 29 Sep. 2008

TIME – Myanmar’s Jade Mines May Yield Great Wealth – But They Leave A Long Trail of Death – 9 Mar. 2017

Author: Nadia Abed