By Spencer Feingold
In the northeastern Indian states of Jharkhand and Bihar, it is not uncommon to see children walking around rural villages with shimmering skin and sparkling clothes. But the kids are not being flashy. They are covered in mica — a mineral mined in the region and used in beauty products around the world.
The use of child labor to mine mica has plagued the beauty industry for decades, leading consumers and top brands to take action against the practice. Yet a recent report from Refinery29 found that despite the efforts to create an ethical supply chain, transparency remains elusive and child labor continues to be the norm.
“Children are not only mining this mica, but children are dying in the mines,” Lexy Lebsack, the host of Refinery29’s investigative series “Shady,” told Cheddar.
Lebsack visited mines in Jharkhand in January to report on the issue, meet with the child laborers, and see how effective major brands and labor advocacy groups have been at safeguarding children.
“We would pull up to the mines and kids as young as 5 years old would come out of holes in the ground with sparkly cheeks,” she said.
Mica is used in everything from car paint to plastic products but is especially prevalent in makeup, specifically shimmering products like sparkling eyeliner, nail polish, and lip gloss. Once extracted, illegally or unethically mined mica is often exported out of India through middle men and added to the global supply with little record of where it came from.
“You might think you are getting a product that is more natural and more eco-friendly because of this natural ingredient, but the supply chain is incredibly dirty,” Lebsack said.
An estimated 20,000 children are mining mica and are exposed to extremely dangerous working conditions, according to Terre des Hommes Netherlands, the Dutch arm of the international Switzerland-based children's rights organization. The children come from roughly 300 impoverished villages and produce over 25 percent of the world’s total mica production.
“Child labor is the consequence of the raging social and economic challenges that populations from the Jharkhand and Bihar mica belt are facing to maintain a livelihood,” Fanny Fremont, the executive director of the Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI), told Cheddar.
‘At The End of the Day Children are Dying in These Mines’
The working environment is also incredibly treacherous for children’s safety with fatal accidents happening routinely, Lebsack found. Collapsing mines pose the greatest risk to children and fatalities at illegal mining operations are rarely reported to police. Long-term mica miners also face deadly lung diseases from inhaling harmful particles underground, which are especially threatening to growing children.
The children often work in the mines after school to provide extra money for their families or forgo primary school years altogether.
“Because of the level of poverty, the lack of quality education infrastructures, and the absence of alternatives, children often end up dropping school and 'helping' their parents digging pits, crushing, washing, or transporting mica to collecting points,” Fremont said. The RMI was founded in 2017 to unite companies, NGOs, and other stakeholders in an effort to create an ethical mica supply chain and eliminate child labor in Jharkhand and Bihar by 2022.
Aware of the issue, beauty companies have pursued a number of strategies to ethically source mica and eliminate the use of child labor. Major brands such as Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, and Sephora have all joined the RMI to increase investments in the local communities and identify illegal mines.
“L’Oréal has committed itself to remain in India and ensure the traceability and transparency of its supply chain,” the French beauty giant said in a statement. On the other hand, companies like Lush in the United Kingdom have switched to using 100 percent synthetic mica.
“We need to restructure the system, and that is going to take a lot of work, and a lot of it is going to fall on the brands that are buying this mica,” Lebsack said, adding that beauty conglomerates should not pull out and abandon the unethical supply chain they helped create.
Lebsack added that companies and NGOs should instead take their lead from the families working in the mines who made two simple demands: higher wages and safer mining standards.
Despite the public concern from activists and international conglomerates, the Indian government has largely dragged its feet on the issue, which is made all the more complicated by the isolated geography of the mines, India’s enduring caste system, and the extreme poverty in the area. Illegal mines, which proliferated after the government stopped renewing mining licenses following the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, have also largely been tolerated by the authorities, according to Terre des Hommes.
In 2018, however, the government of Jharkhand did sign an agreement with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Kailash Satyarthi, whose eponymous foundation supports “child friendly villages” and is dedicated to eliminating child labor from mica mining
“It is a really complex and layered issue because of all the issues happening in India,” Lebsack said. “But at the end of the day children are dying in these mines.”