We reported a while back on the fact that a large portion of the mica that’s now sold on the international market — and used to make car paints, cosmetics, etc. sparkle — is originating from illegal child and debt labor mines in India.
A fair number of large corporations responded to the original story, which was the result of a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation, with statements to the effect that sourcing changes would be made to avoid patronizing such operations in the future.
That was over a year ago now. Has anything changed since then? Based on a follow-up report from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, no — children are still working in illegal mica mines in large numbers, they’re still dying or disappearing, their deaths are still being covered up, and it’s still so that people in wealthier places can drive cars that sparkle.
As the new article from Reuters is excellent, I’m just going to highlight some excerpts here rather than paraphrase: “Since 12-year-old Laxmi Kumari was buried alive in a mica mine 8 months ago, her family’s grief has turned to despair on realizing promises by global companies to end child labor in the mines in eastern India have so far led to nothing. … Interviews with local communities, government officials and charity workers, along with local newspaper reports, revealed at least 9 people — including Laxmi and 3 other children — have died in collapses at unregulated mines this year.
“Laxmi and 3 others from her village in Jharkhand’s Giridih district, including a teenage girl, died on May 1. By the time her mother Parwatiya Devi got word that the mine had collapsed and made the one hour trek from her village to the makeshift mine, it was too late. ‘We dug with our bare hands. We found my younger daughter who had clawed and dragged herself out of soil despite her broken leg,’ said Parawatiya, sitting beside the 10-year-old who could still barely walk, outside their mud home in Duba village. ‘But Laxmi was dead by the time we found her. She was not breathing. There was no life in her.’
“Campaigners fear the death toll is likely much higher than 9 as bodies are often not recovered from the rubble, or are quickly and silently cremated in the forests by mine operators. Yet as children continue to risk their lives, an initiative set up in January and backed by multi-billion dollar companies to end child labor in India’s mica supply chain by 2022 has failed to have any tangible action on the ground, they said.”
That initiative — the Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI) — despite being comprised of 39 major multinational firms (including L‘Oréal, Merck, Estee Lauder, etc.) amazingly only raised around half a million euros in funding during 2017.
I’m fairly “cynical,” but are you really telling me that firms literally overflowing in capital, like those discussed above, can’t come up with more money than that to deal with this issue?
The Reuters coverage continues: “The Paris-based RMI, however, said its first year was a ‘preparation year’ dedicated to setting up the organization, enlisting members, and raising funds. Projects to improve the lives of rural communities are expected to begin next year. ‘When I compare many other initiatives, it’s incredible that already around 40 members have decided to join and take action altogether and have a 5-year program with real impact,’ said RMI’s Executive Director Fanny Frémont. ‘I don’t think it could have been done any quicker. You need to align all the stakeholders. It’s actually a very short time if you compare it to similar organizations.'”
For whatever that’s worth…
As some further background here, mica is used in electronics, construction materials, and pharmaceuticals in addition to its uses in sparkling car paint and cosmetics.
India remains one of the top mica mining hubs in the world, despite a rapid reduction in extraction rates in the early 1980s owing to legislation meant to stymie deforestation — with illegal mining activity at abandoned mines surging over the last few decades owing to growing demand spurred by economic growth in China, and renewed demand for “natural” cosmetics.
The illegal activity at these abandoned mines relies heavily on the use of debt slavery and child labor. As helpfully explained by Reuters, “In one of the poorest regions of India, children as young as 5 are part of an opaque supply chain — beginning in Giridih’s decrepit mines and ending in Paris’ fragrant beauty stores.”
While it is technically illegal for those under 18 years of age in India to work in mines, the reality is that such laws are not enforced much in poor rural regions. Perhaps more importantly, the lack of oversight accompanying the “illegal” status of regional mica mining allows operators to more easily hide the relatively common deaths of workers, many of which are children. Threats to surviving family members (and the use of blood money) to hush things up are reportedly fairly common.
Amazingly, this convoluted system is now responsible for around 25% of mica extraction/production in the world, by some estimates. Up to 50,000 children are reportedly involved in the work; accompanied by large numbers of debt slaves as well.
Owing to these realities, the government of India’s Jharkhand has been moving in recent times to legalize the industry and begin regulating it again — as an attempt to limit some of the more egregious abuses.
The whole article is worth a read for those with the time. While the problems with child labor involvement in mica mining are by no means unique — similar problems pervade the mining industries as a whole — the situation is one that directly involves nearly everyone who’s reading this (that is, who drives cars with paint that sparkles or wears cosmetics).
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