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Mica mining: Cosmetic giants riding on children’s backs In India

|By Sanjay Pandey|

As the sun crawls up the sky in Koderma, abandoned mica mines start shimmering in its reflection. Driven by hunger pangs, a group of sleepy children from a neighbouring village trudges towards the Charki mines, holding mining tools in their hands.

Five-year-old Ajay Das hurriedly slips into a narrow hole and starts his day. His tiny hands can barely balance the hammer, but he still hits the shimmering wall accurately and breaks the flakes off it. The mineral that falls off in flakes is called mica, which is used to add glitter in natural cosmetics.

If you have ever wondered where does the shimmer in your lipstick come from, here is your answer.

The glitter could well be borrowed from the beads of perspiration of child workers toiling in illegal and hazardous mica mines in an impoverished eastern state of Jharkhand.

Sounds preposterous? Here’s a reality check.

According to NGO research firm DanWatch, 12 out of 16 international cosmetic companies knowingly or unknowingly use child labour for their products.

Around the world, mica is used as a key ingredient in cosmetic products such as facepack, mascara, eyeliners, lipsticks and nail polish. It is used not only to add sparkle to the products, but to absorb excess oils and give it a consistent texture.

Though Merck, which supplies mica to L’Oreal, won’t openly admit that the intermediaries from whom it sources raw material, buy the product from child labourers.

Ajay works six days a week. After toiling for 7-8 hours a day, he manages to earn a paltry sum of Rs 20.

There are around 5,000 children like him who extract mica from illegal mines in Jharkhand and Bihar.

Through several intermediaries, that buy mica from both legal and illegal mines in India, the mica is sold to exporters with international customers such as L’Oreal and Estée Lauder.

According to DanWatch’s new report on use of child labour in cosmetic industry, 16 companies behind 20 cosmetic brands were examined.

Twelve cannot or will not due to competitive reasons, disclose, where they buy the natural ingredient, mica, for their make-up. But research by DanWatch in Jharkhand and Bihar shows strong ties between two of the region’s biggest buyers of mica and several of the world’s biggest makeup brands.

“In our research we found illegal mica mining often involves child labour, which is a significant problem in India. This report confirms that most companies do not give the consumers a clear picture of their supply chain”,

Louise Voller of DanWatch.

According to UN Child Conventions, it’s illegal for children under 14 years to work with mica extraction or in mining in general.Moreover, International Labour Organisation says minors working in a mine is the worst form of child labour.

According to locals, the mines were closed two decades ago. Since then the poor people in the neighbouring areas have been involved in scrap mining. This leads to mishaps every now and then.

Children working with their parents often get trapped and die in case of collapse of the roof of the mine wall.

“I think the best way to stop illegal mining is to legalize it. This will solve two problems in one go – illegal mining and child labour. As the financial health of the family improves, there will be a social pressure on the parents to send their children back to school,”

said social activist Arun Barnwal.

However, Directorate of Mines Safety feigned ignorance about any such incident.

According to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, mining is not allowed in the reserved forest areas. As a result, most mica mines closed down by 1993. This took a heavy toll on the mica mining industry.

During its hey days, the mica industry used to employ 20000 people in Koderma. Now with only a few mines legally allowed to mine, they merely employ 1000 people legally.

“There was a time when you could see mica exporters living a lavish life in their kothis. Rolls Royce and BMW cars rolling on the streets of Jhumri Telaiyya was not an uncommon sight. The same Mica Gully that used to be the hub of activities now wears a deserted look,”

lamented  Barnwal.

However, around 5000 children are involved in scrap mining. The government should allow these poor villagers to do mining and do it with safety after taking necessary precaution.

This will also ensure that they get paid as per market rates and government gets royalty for the same,”

he underlined.

According to a recent central government report, Jharkhand lost Rs 23,000 crore to illegal mining in the year of 2012-2013.

The closure of mines has either prompted people to resort to illegal mining or flee to metropolitan cities.

According to Indian Bureau of Mines, India officially produces about 15,000 tonnes of crude and scrap mica a year.

Surprisingly, it exported more than 130,000 tonnes – more than eight times the official figure – in 2011-12. And more than half of the supply was exported to China from where it was routed to several European and American cosmetic giants.

Most of India’s exports of high-quality mica flakes come from illegal mines and are mined by child miners like Ajay.

But they have no clue where the mica goes and what purpose it is used for. Intermediaries, who buy raw material from them at dirt-cheap price, would not reveal the name of their foreign clients either.

“We cannot reveal the name of our clients. It is a business secret. All I can tell you is that we process the raw material and ship it to our clients abroad,”

said a small-time intermediary who refused to disclose his and company’s name.

Mica used in cosmetics has been linked to child labour in the past.

In 2009, German pharmaceutical and chemicals company Merck KGaA was accused of using children to mine mica in India. Merck supplies mica to cosmetic brands around the world,

In a face-saving measure, the pharmaceutical giant opened a few schools in partnership with NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) and health camps to send children back to school.

But BBA’s founder Kailash Satyarthi termed Merck’s efforts as mere “window dressing”.

“They don’t have a sustainable programme. They started the schools with much fanfare, but we have observed none of the schools and health centres are functioning properly now,”

he said.

That child labour is used to mine mica in India is known to all, except for the government of India, which seem to have conveniently turned a blind eye to the problem.

When asked about rampant illegal mica mining happening in Jharkhand, India’s mines secretary , Anup K. Pujari drily said,

“The government doesn’t recognize any illegal activity there.”

It has been two decades since majority of mica mines were closed due to environmental concerns. But the closure that rendered thousands jobless ended up pushing children into forced labour.

“The government does not want to stop illegal mining and cares little about the welfare of the children. Closure of legal mines gives backdoor entry to the mafia. Most intermediaries who are minting cash are close to several ministers in the state and the centre,”

said Satyarthi, whose organisation has helped create ‘child-friendly villages’ in Jharkhand, where children do not work.

About a dozen private mica mine owners have knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court against the decision of the forest authorities to implement the Forest Conservation Act in the mining areas.

They alleged in their petition that the Act was formulated by the Centre without the consent of the state government. They are, however, hopeful of getting a relief from the apex court.

Till the verdict comes out, thousands of children like Ajay will continue to risk their life and limb to earn a living.

How can you help?

Companies should know about the labor conditions in their supply chain and publicly release this information.

Contact the company that makes your cosmetics and ask them to guarantee that child labour is not used in any part of their supply chain. You will let them know that you are not OK with them being ignorant about whether or not children are exploited to mine this mineral.

Several phone calls and emails to make-up giant L’Oreal Group, whose brands include Lancome, L’Oreal and Maybelline, failed to illicit any response from them, inadvertently establishing how concerned they are about child labour.

How to take action

1)   Choose one of the brands that make the cosmetics you use.

2)   Log into Facebook or Twitter, search for your cosmetics brand’s account and ask them:

Facebook (copy this text): Hi, I love your products and use them regularly, but I also care about child labour in mica mining. I want to know where the mica used in your cosmetics comes from, and whether you can confirm that no children are mining mica in the manufacture of your cosmetics? How do you ensure that child labour is not used in your supply chain? #mica @PointBlank7

Twitter (copy and edit this text):  .@ [brand] I use your makeup + I care about child labour in mica mining. Do you use child labour in yr supply chain? #mica @pointblankseven

Add the hashtags so everyone can see what’s happening.

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