What is beauty? It certainly is in the eyes of the beholder. Regardless, we can all agree beauty is a collection of qualities that please, and pleasure is something we humans crave. The industries are aware of this. Hence, they avidly create all sorts of products to satisfy our needs, wants, and, of course, our senses.
The cosmetics industry masters the techniques to design products that generate pleasant sensations. Textures, scent, colour, appearance… marketers consider every detail to market perfect products in the industry of the good looks. However, as the saying goes, all that glitters is not gold; the beauty industry sweeps many ugly truths under the rug. But one is particularly disturbing: its connections with child labour and human rights abuse.
An ingredient: the root of abuse
One ingredient is to blame for fueling modern-day slavery: mica. Also listed under the names ‘potassium aluminium silicate’ or ‘CI 77019’. Mica is simply a silicate mineral, a layered dusty-textured rock with many desirable properties, especially for cosmetics: it reflects light away, providing a youthful even-looking complexion and a radiant finish when applied to the skin. Besides, it’s a safe ingredient with no side effects.
Mica can come across as the perfect component. On account of its characteristics, it is a well-loved ingredient by both the industry and the consumers. What’s more, this ‘love’ for mica has nothing but increased in the last years with the rise of natural and organic beauty products. Consequently, the demand keeps growing, and, if this trend continues, its global market will reach $727 million worth by 2025, according to Zion Market Research.
Still, mica remains one of the most controversial products in the industry because of its contribution to child labour and human rights abuse. While the mineral can be sourced from a plethora of countries with diverse policies regulating the activity, most of the mica that ends in cosmetics comes from India, particularly from the regions of Bihar and Jharkhand. This area, known as ‘the mica belt’, is exploited due to the quality of its rocks and its bargain prices, only attainable through illegal mines where, unfortunately, dire working conditions and child labouring are the standards.
Mine owners and brokers take advantage of the lack of regulation to hire kids as young as five years old to extract the mineral. Children are selected to join the workforce for their tiny and delicate hands, perfect for the chore. However, the mines’ illegal condition also permits exploiting workers of all ages, who get paid as little as €0.30 per day, keeping the labour costs close to nothing.
The hazards of mining mica
For a little steady income, kids get themselves every day inside the depths of small tunnels without any safety measures. They work barehanded and barefooted, without protective gear, facing numerous risks under highly hazardous conditions.
Infections and lung diseases are not uncommon health issues among the youngest: the little oxygen in the mine tunnels and the fine dust particles in suspension compromise their respiratory system health for the rest of their lives under the risk of suffering silicosis, tuberculosis, and asthma. In addition, minor injuries such as cuts, broken bones, skin abrasions or head injuries also pose a significant threat to the minor’s health, given the presence of dirt and the lack of correct treatments. In this way, trivial accidents can result in serious infections.
Unfortunately, these are not the only dangers the kids face. Lethal accidents are common, as the risk of mine shafts collapsing is high. Usually, the unsafe mines are unsupervised, causing the victims to stay trapped under rocks for way too long for any help to arrive in time. The institutions conceal all these accidents under the illegality’s veil of secrecy, yet some organisations’ reports suggest up to 20 people die monthly during mining, including kids.
The health hazards are brutally concerning, yet the impact of mining goes further beyond. The consequences for kids are devastating as mining also hampers their correct development. Kids working in mines usually bail out of school and miss their chance to be children, reinforcing intergenerational poverty cycles.
Why is the industry fueling this situation?
The mica mining situation is not a secret to anyone, so why are these cruel and illegal practices perpetuated? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not so simple since a combination of elements is responsible for it.
The lack of governmental action is one of them. Even though the law states hiring children under 14 is illegal, reality is the institutions turn a blind eye. The officials take advantage of the lack of reports to deny these activities occurring in theoretically closed mines.
The industry itself is another fundamental component in this equation. There is a massive benefit in making the source and the supply chain invisible; this way, the production costs remain very low while the benefits are considerable. Once extracted and processed, the mica is sent to intermediates that sell the mineral under a legal mine license to China’s factories. Once in China, the source material arrives in factories that process and sell it to the manufacturer. As a result, the retailers and product suppliers do not know where the mica in their products came from.
The last factor is the absence of work opportunities. Mining mica had always been the mainactivity in the region, but the national government forbade it for environmental reasons. However, the ban never came with an economical relocation plan, leaving entire families without any option but to work illegally.
How to help in this situation?
At first instance, it might appear the easiest solution is to stop consuming products containing mica or opt for its synthetic version, providing the same benefits with a lower environmental impact. However, the reality is that it is an arduous task to identify products not containing the mineral. Moreover, different organisations defend calling for a boycott and cutting off mica consumption would devastate the families relying on mining.
Organisations such as Terre des Hommes stand for a regulation of the Mica industry to create a transparent chain supply. The goal is to trace down the mineral’s origin and guarantee the mine workers’ conditions. Terre des Hommes’ Responsible Mica Initiative advocates for a change in the supply chain by creating work safety standards and a legal framework to protect the community.
Likewise, some of the biggest brands in the industry also propose the creation of a standard with an identifiable logo (similar to the Leaping Bunny or the caring consumer logos), making it easier for consumers to identify products not supporting exploitation. This certification would guarantee the mica contained in the product comes from a responsible and sustainable supply chain, free from child labouring and where employee’s safety is respected, allowing brands to be more transparent. Yet, this idea is far from becoming a reality, putting in evidence the need to end child labour and modern slavery.