MAC: Mines and Communities

The struggle to source child labour-free mica

Published by MAC on 2016-07-31
Source: Guardian

Beauty companies and the struggle to source child labour-free mica

Nearly a decade after child labour in mica mining came to light, the cosmetic industry’s progress on cleaning up its supply chain for the glittery mineral has been slow and tricky

Peter Bengtsen and Laura Paddison

28 July 2016

In the hilly forests of rural Jharkand, India, children as young as 10 are hammering flakes of rock off the mountainside. Others, mostly young girls, carry baskets of rocks to the top of the mine to sort through their contents. Their job is to separate glittering fragments from the rock debris.

These fragments are mica, the mineral that adds a shimmer to beauty products such as blusher, eye shadow, lipstick and foundation, as well as to the paints used by the car and construction industries. Some of the world’s biggest cosmetics companies including L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, as well as suppliers such as Merck, source mica from India, one of the top producing mica countries in the world.

Yet more than a decade after cosmetics suppliers were alerted to its existence, child labour remains prevalent in mica mining in the two states of Jharkand and Bihar, responsible for around 25% of the world’s production. Up to 20,000 children are estimated to work in the mines, around 90% of which are illegal, according to a recent report by NGOs Terre des Hommes and SOMO.

Grinding poverty (according to 2013 data 36.9% of the population in Jharkand and 33.7% in Bihar live below the poverty line) makes children especially vulnerable to child labour, as families rely on them to supplement the household income.

Boycotting mica

Even natural cosmetics company Lush, which prides itself on its ethical credentials, has struggled to clean up its mica supply chain.

Two years after committing to remove all traces of natural mica from its products, following a Guardian article about child labour, the company has been unable to eradicate the mineral from its supply chain.

“We had no idea just how difficult that would be,” says Stephanie Boyd, the company’s PR manager. “As a direct ingredient it would be easy to identify, but unfortunately mica remains as part of a complex mix of materials that are used to make colour pigments and lustres.”

Boyd says the company has not knowingly purchased any materials containing natural mica since 2014.

For Aidan McQuaide, director of the NGO Anti-Slavery International, boycotts are not generally the best approach as “the livelihoods of many poor people can be threatened”. But he acknowledges many business leaders have found the task of achieving the ideal of decent work in Indian mining “impossible, given the overwhelming challenges”.

Child-friendly villages

While Lush says it doesn’t have “the purchasing power or local knowledge” to stay and make a difference, other companies have opted to continue sourcing from the region, and to try to tackle the problem on the ground.

For some, such as Estée Lauder, L’Oréal and Yves Rocher, this has involved focusing on “child-friendly villages”. This model was established in 2010 as a joint initiative between the National Resources Stewardship Council (NRSC) – a non-profit promoting responsible sourcing whose members include many of the biggest cosmetics companies – and Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA).

The scheme aims to get children in 500 villages in the region into school instead of mining by working with local communities and governments to improve educational infrastructure and living conditions. The idea is to eventually hand responsibility over to communities and government, says Daljeet Singh, project director at BBA.

According to Anna Klein, vice president of corporate affairs for Estée Lauder, “While this program has yet to end child labor in mica mines, it shows that responsible business practices and sustained collaboration can create better practices for children.”

BBA told the Guardian that of the 500 villages, 100 have so far been converted to child friendly villages leading to 3,650 children being enrolled in school, several new schools constructed and existing schools improved with basic infrastructure such as clean drinking water, mid-day meals and toilets.

An NRSC summit, held in February behind closed doors, brought together cosmetics companies and suppliers, NGOs, government and mica community members to discuss responsible sourcing. One of the outcomes was the commitment of attendees to scale up the child-friendly villages model to the remaining 400 villages, says NRSC’s executive director, Catherine Peyreaud.

“This summit is a big step forward to address the challenges in the region, improve the living conditions in all 400 villages and allow access to schools for the 50,000 children in these villages,” says Buwan Ribhu, national secretary of BBA. The organisation expects the cost to be $6m (£4.58m) to cover the remaining 400 villages although it did not disclose how much companies would be contributing towards this.

Stéphanie Carson-Parker head of external communications for L’Oréal says the summit represented “an important step towards a collective approach to sustainable mica sourcing.”

Others, however, found the event indicative of the industry’s foot-dragging on the issue of child labour. “The lack of clear targets, a well-defined timeframe and a proper control mechanism are reasons to worry,” says Rob Harrison, editor of Ethical Consumer magazine. “In 10 years, child labour has been far from eradicated. It took a year just to prepare the summit.”

What’s more, not everyone is convinced of the ability of such schemes to tackle the problem. Rishi Sher Singh, summit participant and director of ASRD, a sustainable business consultancy says that while basic education is essential, “if children don’t learn how to make a living in other ways, they will go back to mining once school is over”.

Tracing difficulties

Another goal of the summit was traceability. Companies including L’Oréal, which owns brands such as Body Shop and Maybelline, and Merck have committed to sourcing only from legal and fenced mines, thereby avoiding the informal sector where the child labour problem is most prevalent.

A spokesperson for Merck, Neetha Mahadevan, said the company sources from “six dedicated mines and “five out of these supply exclusively to Merck”. The Terre des Hommes report points to some of the difficulties government processes place on mica sourcing companies. The Indian Bureau of Mines 2015 data lists no legal mines in Jharkand(pdf), where Merck has three mines, but Merck has mining lease documents and recent mining inspection reports from the Indian Bureau of Mines.

Both companies also conduct audits of suppliers. Since 2012, Merck has used Environmental Resources Management to conduct annual audits of mines and processing plants, and says it has severed relationships with two suppliers based on the outcome of these audits.

For Singh, the situation is so complex that despite traceability schemes, “it’s very difficult to say that mica from this area is entirely free of child labour”.

Government action

According to many campaigners, the solution to the child labour problem has to be wider than business. “Social development initiatives such as the child friendly villages can only have a positive impact if they are complementary to government efforts, on national and local level”, says Aysel Sabahoglu, child rights officer of Terre des Hommes. She adds that while there is legislation to protect children, “there is still no or little enforcement on local level ... due to corruption, lack of capacity and children who are not registered.”

McQuaide says the answer to child labour in mica mining will not be found in company boycotts, audits or social projects, however well meaning, but instead in efforts that push recalcitrant governments to act. Attempts to combat child labour can only ever be limited, he says, so long as companies “remain silent” on governments’ inaction on human rights abuses.

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