In the past decade western media exposing the extent of child labour across India has seen some companies take positive action.
In 2018 people’s awareness of the exploitative nature of fast fashion increased and consumers are making conscious choices to not support the unethical manufacturers. Hopefully this new year we see consumer mindfulness continue to gain traction, however our clothing is not the only daily used item with potential links to modern slavery. For my first 30 million piece I decided to draw your attention to another industry getting less air time but likewise needing to be kept accountable for where materials are sourced and in turn who pays the price of their negligence; the cosmetics industry. Addressing all the issues in this ever-growing business is far beyond my capabilities in this many words, so for now I will be specifically highlighting the illegal and unethical practices of Mica mining in India.
Mica is the name given to a broad range of silicate minerals naturally forming in transparent sheets, which are extremely durable to heat and electricity. For this reason the crystal-like rocks are ideal for a variety of applications, including in paint extender and electronics. Despite this, the mineral’s glittery appearance attracted an increase in business, when its ability to add shimmer and further pigment to cosmetics was realised. Where the use of this substance becomes problematic is how it is sourced, as tracing the supply chain back to the mica mines in India reveals a huge portion of the work force is made up of children as their tiny hands are deemed perfect for sorting the material.
India is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of mica, with majority of this collected in illegal mines across the states of Jharkhand and Bihar. Prior to 1980, there were over 700 mica mines, yet deforestation legislation was then implemented leading to the closure of many. Since then we have seen the popularity of mineral makeup skyrocket and in turn demand for natural mica. This brings us to current day where many of these mines reopened and an unregulated black market thrives allowing children and adults alike to work in dangerous conditions for little to no money. Many of the mine shafts, hidden deep in conservation reserves, go deep in to the earth without adequate infrastructure meaning cave ins are common cause of many deaths. The extent of the problem is untraceable as in these instances’ bodies cannot be recovered, or the mine operators cremate them in order to avoid scrutiny. This is in addition to the mines being illegal in the first place and not included in any official production statistics or reports by the Indian Governments. Besides the immediate danger of the work, additional concerns include the large amounts of silicone dust inhaled by the workers, damaging their young lungs.
Whilst India’s law forbids minors under the age of 18 from mining, the widespread poverty in these areas necessitates children contributing to the family’s income. The India government is not disregarding the issue, but the illegitimate nature of the issue is difficult to address. Moreover the region needs this work as it is the main source of income preventing many local communities from hitting absolute poverty. In 2017 Jharkhand state authorities began the process of legalising the industry again so it can be better regulated which shows the potential for wage and working condition improvements.
Those in a better position to implement change are the top buyers for influential companies, to whom people like us can demand full transparency. In the past decade western media exposing the extent of child labour across India has seen some companies take positive action.
The Estee Lauder group, owning well-known brands such as Clinique and Too Faced, has great emphasis on sustainable sourcing. In 2005 they joined with a local NGO’s save the children movement, promoting school as an important alternative to the dangerous work sites. By mid-2017 their collaboration with communities across India had helped supported the establishment of 150 child friendly villages.
In 2014 Lush Cosmetics made the decision to switch to a synthetic alternative to mica after struggling to guarantee transparency in their supply chain. This choice received some disapproval given the previously mention complexities that mining is the livelihood for many communities; with critics believing they should have used their leverage to demand better conditions. However I do not believe they should be harshly condemned as they were honest with their customers that they found it challenging to monitor and stated environmentally benefits of synthetic mica were another reason for their choice.
These brands are making an impact to reduce child labour but until we see mica users across all industries investigate their sources and eliminate these unethical practices, they will continue. It is easy to be distracted by shiny things, but we mustn’t be when it comes at such a cost.