Courtesy of Anshul Gupta, Owner of Ashwani Kumar and Co.

Firozabad, India — a small industrial city 200 kilometers from India’s capital city, is the biggest global manufacturer and exporter of bangles, employing 50,000 families and annually grossing over $28 billion

Bangles, traditional ornamental bracelets, are an integral part of Indian culture, symbolizing prosperity and longevity in marriage and are widely associated with femininity. Yet, despite the glamorous nature of these bangles, the work of making them often remains unsafe and underpaid.  

Workers handle molten glass daily, with no gloves or masks. They are constantly exposed to glass shards and particles, which causes 23.9 percent of workers to develop bronchitis, and some even blindness. The pigments used contain cadmium and mercury, which release toxic fumes that are inhaled by the workers. Despite these risks, workers earn a minimum wage and the middleman stands to profit.

Making bangles begins with melting the glass in dingy and hot cells where temperatures can go up to 2000 degrees Celsius. 

“The glass melts at 1200 degrees Celsius, and the molten glass is carried on top of a metal rod to a spinner, where it is spun into a spiral by a worker,” Anshul Gupta, the owner of a glass bangle factory in Firozabad, said. “The spiral is then cut with a diamond cutter to separate the individual bangles. Then the bangle is adjoined, painted and designed.” 

It is estimated that bangles pass through at least 80 workers’ hands before reaching the customer. These dangerous conditions, though, are also made worse by the fact that workers often find gloves and masks unconformable, Gupta said. “The most we can do is tell them to use it [gloves, masks and shoes], if they don’t then it’s their fault,” he went on to say when asked about the difficulties workers face.

These difficulties do not end with the dangerous working conditions. 

Workers, despite facing severe risks, earn a salary ranging from $1 to $13 a day.

Middlemen in the supply chain — namely, bangle retailers — reap disproportionate profits over the laborers. When Amit Rathore — a bangle retailer in Firozabad — was asked about how many sales he makes a day, he refused to answer and ended the interview.

What allows retailers to make these sales and set bangles apart, captivating buyers, is the exquisite allure of their unique designs, intricately adorned with beads and small ornaments, creating a distinctive and irresistible charm. 

Yet, behind the captivating charm of these bangles lies a somber reality — the intricate designs are often painstakingly crafted through unpaid labor, as many women and children within the families of factory workers work for no salary, sacrificing their education.  

“Working in a bangle factory is a [generational] tradition, children grow up learning the skills [of the trade],” Gupta said.  

When these children spend their days decorating bangles rather than getting an education, they become trapped, Gupta explained. 

As they grow older, they have no choice but to follow in the footsteps of their family and continue working in these factories. This, Gupta added, is why many people are moving out of Firozabad to go into cities such as New Delhi and Agra, where jobs may be better. 

This, however, has had seemingly no effect on the number of workers in these factories. 

Other sources suggest that children even have a role in carrying “the rod with molten glass on

the top, as the children run fast and are smaller and so can better navigate in the cramped work sites.” 

These problems are rooted in the industry’s lack of funds and investment. The bellowing chimneys emitting black smoke from furnaces are a testament to the lack of modern machinery in these factories — a smoke turning the Taj Mahal from marble white to yellow. There is a significant gap between Firozabad’s glass industry and those of nations like Italy and the Czech Republic. This underfunding leads to child and manpower exploitation, with factory owners resorting to paying workers low wages to keep up with the market.

Other jobs in Firozabad share similar problems. “There are only glass-related jobs in Firozabad, everyone works in [glass] factories,” said Gupta.

Amid the struggles workers face, the cultural significance of bangles in India is fading, slowly but steadily. The meaning behind bangles has drastically changed as generations pass. 

Vandana Arora, age 64, said that if a girl becomes a widow, the first thing to be removed would be her bangles. “When a woman is married, all the other women are made to wear green bangles, as it is a symbol of fertility,” Arora continued. 

Yet, Shubra Rana, age 41, said that bangles are purely an “accessory” for celebrations, weddings and festivals. 

However, this fading culture has had no apparent impact on the market of Firozabad, according to Gupta.

The glass industry of Firozabad has roots in the Mughal era of the 16th century when Emperor Akbar created the first glass factory in the region.