Mica: The Human Cost of the Cosmetic Industry

Written by Eva Petrova.
Edited by Giulia Cottino.

For most of us, the word Mica holds no significant meaning. However, we are all far more familiar with this resource than we realise. Mica is a naturally occurring mineral that has come to be widely used in our everyday items, it is in our paint, our electronic equipment, and it dominates the cosmetic industry. While this mineral is used to achieve that shimmering affect in many products that we love, there is a dark side to this material and it lies within the means of extraction.

The extraction process relies upon Mica mine workers, many of whom operate under illegal contracts. In these treacherous and collapsible mines, the constant temperature remains around 45 degrees all day long. Every day, for hours on hours, women and children, including mothers with new-borns harnessed on their backs are subjected to unlawful working conditions in these brutal pits. At the end of the day, people in this area must choose whether it is better to starve or to expose themselves to the life-threatening work of an illegal mica miner. Ironically, both choices produce the same outcome, oppressed communities and broken childhoods.

Currently, a wide majority of the mineworkers are underage children, forced into these grueling conditions and never-ending working shifts. Poor rural areas like Jharkhand, in India, are particularly vulnerable to this exploitation, because of extreme poverty within the region.  Jharkhand and Bihar are the two Indian states primarily responsible for the global supply of Mica. Escaping this unfettered poverty is the sole motivation of the people who work in these mines. A 2016 report announced that approximately 37% of the Jharkhand population lives below the poverty line. Which explains that a survey conducted by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in 2018, revealed that more than 22,000 of the illegal employees working in mica mines across the two states, are children.

Image by Khusen Rustamov from Pixabay 

The lives of these children are far removed ours. Naturally, this need to work in order to contribute to the household income, had denied these children of their right to an education. This is the ultimate form of entrapment, as these children have no real prospect of escaping from this perpetual cycle of poverty. This is made worse by the pitifully low wages, perpetuated by large corporations, who are intentionally ignoring the dark origins of their mica supply. However, a lacking education and inadequate pay are not the only consequences of working in these underground pits. Employees have frequently complained of respiratory problems, back pain and aching muscles. These revelations were shared with cosmetic companies a few years back, and despite spineless promises to “investigate” the situation, child labour continues to account for 25% of the world’s production in these regions.

The difficulty of tackling this issue comes down to the traceability of mica and the accountability of the cosmetic industry. For instance, the beauty company, L’oreal, have publicly “committed to sourcing only from legal and fenced mines’. However, in 2015 the Indian Bureau of Mines revealed that all mica mines in Jharkhand are illegal, and yet L’oreal continues to source part of their mica supply from three mines situated there. It would seem that holding cosmetic companies accountable is not enough to solve this ongoing issue of child labour. To successfully tackle this issue, on its most fundamental level, government actions are required. Yet, realistically, because of the ongoing issues surrounding corruption and negligence for child rights within India, it will be difficult to enforce meaningful regulations.

Image by AdoreBeautyNZ from Pixabay 

Unfortunately, the problems with Mica extend far beyond India. Travelling further south, Madagascar sits as the world’s third-largest Mica exporter. The difference with India is that Malagasy employees earn significantly less than Indian workers. The island primarily supplies sheet mica, which is utilised in automobiles, airplanes and electrical items. Research suggests that 90% of mica resources mined on the island is directly exported to China, even though extensive findings and evidences were published more than two years ago. Companies are refusing to address this pressing issue and avoiding tracing of the source of their Mica supply. This shameful impartiality on behalf of companies is infringing upon employees’ human rights.

In 2019, CNN conducted an extensive report on the realities of child labour in Madagascar. A team visited the island and interviewed workers in mica mines. One of the interviewees was a mother with her four children. The family works from 5 am to 6 pm and the salary is less than $3 per week. Moreover, their low wage limits them to a single cup of rice per day, shared between the five family members. If companies continue to ignore the consequences of their actions, there bares no hope for the struggling families, and the struggling children in particular, that remain trapped within the Mica industry.

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