The Weekend Essay: How children are sacrificed to mica miningPublished by MAC on 2019-11-29
Source: NBC News
The vast majority of mica mined in Madagascar flows to China.
Appalling acts are occurring in Madagascar in pursuit of the extraction of mica, and among the thousands of its victims are children - some of whom are barely beyond walking age.
This situation was recently exposed by NBC News, contrasting it with that in India where the government has been compelled by public outrage to somewhat limit the practice [see: Indian children die for silver lining].
At the end of what's commonly called "the chain of supply" sit millions of downstream producers, especially in the USA.
The Dodd-Franks legislation was designed to staunch supply of the 3Gs (tin, tantalam, tungsten and gold) mined from conflict zones, primarily in other African states.
Malagasy youngsters have yet to benefit from such ostensibly good intentions.
‘Zone Rouge’: An army of children toils in African mica mines
How mica mined by kids in Madagascar ends up in products used by millions of Americans.
By Lisa Cavazuti, Christine Romo, Cynthia McFadden and Rich Schapiro
8 November 2019
TARANTA-BAS, Madagascar — A boy climbs out of a pit in the ground and shields his
eyes from the sun. His hands and feet are covered in dust, his T-shirt and shorts
covered in rips.
The boy has spent the last several hours working inside the pit. Now above ground,
he proudly holds up an example of his labor: a silvery sheet of mica, the iridescent
mineral shimmering in the afternoon light.
The boy is 10 years old, but he doesn’t go to school. He works for much of the day —
and sometimes through the night — crawling through pitch-black tunnels inside the
makeshift mine, his fingers picking through the earth, collecting and sorting shards
The minerals he picks up will soon make their way through an opaque supply chain
from Africa to Asia before landing in millions of products — electronics,
appliances, even trains — that wind up in America.
“My mother doesn’t make enough money,” says the boy, whose name is Manjoraza. “So I
have to help her make money.”
Manjoraza is among thousands of children working in Madagascar’s mica industry — an
underground army of little laborers who go largely unseen in a country famous for
its lush forests, vanilla crop and lemur population.
Here, where Madagascar’s mica supply chain begins, the boy and his family are
trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty, exploitation and child labor that spans
generations. Without clean water, access to health care or schooling, children like
Manjoraza see their present and their future as revolving around the shards of mica
buried in the pits down below.
The magic mineral: Mica is everywhere
Mica is the name applied to a group of minerals that form in layers at once flexible
A longtime staple of the cosmetics industry, mica is known for adding sparkle to
makeup products and paints. But it’s also prized in the electronics and automotive
worlds due to its ability to transmit electric force without overheating, even under
In Madagascar, an island nation of 25.5 million people located off the southeast
coast of Africa, it’s mined by hand in a cluster of sites in the country’s rugged
south. In 2016, Madagascar overtook India as the biggest global exporter of sheet
mica, the grade used extensively in the electronics and automotive industries,
according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database.
Mica mining in India has generated controversy in recent years for its use of child
labor and unsafe conditions. But Madagascar’s mica sector has garnered little
scrutiny even as it has developed into a critical source for international
NBC News traveled more than 400 miles through Madagascar’s remote south with the
Dutch child protection group Terre des Hommes and witnessed scores of children
working in unregulated and poorly-ventilated mica pits, as well as processing
centers, alongside other family members.
A review of hundreds of shipping records revealed how the vast majority of mica
mined in Madagascar flows to China and ends up in component parts in American
products, such as hair dryers, audio speakers and batteries.
And interviews with executives in Madagascar’s mica industry showed that the
prevalence of child labor is well known but largely dismissed as a byproduct of
Taken together, a picture emerges of children as young as 4 years old performing
long hours of labor-intensive work in often dangerous conditions to collect a
mineral whose price will be inflated nearly 500 times by the time it leaves
“Working in mines is considered one of the worst forms of child labor,”
Claire van Bekkum, senior project manager at Terre des Hommes, said.
“They’re in a hazardous situation health-wise and safety-wise.”
Terre des Hommes released a first-of-its-kind report on Madagascar’s mining sector
Monday, documenting the rampant child labor and cycle of poverty endemic in the
The group found that at least 10,000 children work in the mica sector.
Many of them eat only at night and suffer from grown-up afflictions:
back pain due to the long hours hunched over, as well as headaches because of the
heat and the lack of water or oxygen inside the mines.
“The children who we have interviewed justify the work because they have nothing to
eat, because they are poor, or because their parents do not have enough money to put
them in school,” the report says. “Conditioned by routine, a minority of the
children even think their living and working conditions are normal.”
Over a period of nine days on the ground, NBC News tracked the flow of mica mined in
Madagascar in an effort to shine a light on who is doing the work and whom it most
The journey began in a lawless part of the country — a place known as “zone rouge,”
or red zone.
Drought, poverty and desperation in Andranondambo
The drive to Andranondambo from the southern port city of Fort Dauphin takes more
than nine hours on a dirt patch riddled with rocks and potholes.
The area is plagued by political instability, drought, rampant poverty and rising
levels of banditry. Roughly 4,000 people have been killed in southern Madagascar
over the past five years in violence largely fueled by gangs of thieves and a brutal
government crackdown on them, according to Amnesty International.
It’s the poorest region in what is one of the poorest countries in the world, a 19th
century slave trading center where 75% of the population now lives on less than
$1.90 a day. Madagascar’s south also ranks at the bottom of the quality of life
indicators such as access to health care and education.
It is here where the vast majority of Madagascar mica mining takes place. And it is
here where a mother of six named Solange, 30, makes her living.
She spends her days in narrow pits collecting pieces of mica — and her nights
sleeping outside with her children to protect the haul. “If I left here overnight,
people would steal the mica,” Solange said.
The area is plagued by insecurity. Its lone school was ransacked by the “malaso,”
bands of well-armed cattle thieves whose presence deters local travelers and most
aid groups from passing through the region.
Solange said she typically enters the mica pits at about 7 a.m. and works until at
least 7 p.m. The environment down below is stifling:
temperatures that can exceed 95 degrees, low oxygen levels that can hinder breathing.
She often descends into the pit with her 4-year-old daughter Mirela strapped to her
back but wearing no goggles or safety equipment.
“We don’t have any money,” Solange said. “We don’t have any choice.”
After working for the past two and a half months, Solange’s family has compiled
three grades of mica: scrap, sheet and block. Block mica, the highest quality of the
mineral, earns the equivalent of about 7 cents a pound.
One afternoon, a motorbike roars up the road and stops near the piles of mica
compiled by Solange and other villagers. A man in a black jacket and a white hat
steps off the vehicle. He’s well known here.
The man introduces himself as Joseph and says he’s a mica buyer from Fort Dauphin.
He works for Tri-H, Madagascar’s leading exporter of mica.
Joseph says he buys the mineral for roughly 2 cents a pound and sells it to foreign
importers and manufacturers for a little more than 4 cents a pound, more than
doubling its value. In China, the mica is processed into components that will be
distributed to companies worldwide, including in the United States.
Joseph then walks over to the piles of mica Solange and her family spent the past
two and a half months gathering in the pits and hauling above ground. He provides an
estimate of their value: the equivalent of $240.
Joseph will keep about half that amount to cover the loan he provided Solange, a
loan that allowed her and her eight family members to eat while they toiled in the
pits for several weeks.
For all of that work, their pay breaks down to less than 40 cents a day per person.
Joseph acknowledges that workers like Solange are paid a pittance. But he says
there’s nothing he can do about it.
“The Chinese exporters control the market,” he says.
Of the nearly 46,000 tons of mica Madagascar exported in 2018, more than
91 percent was shipped to China, according to the International Trade Centre.
Joseph insists there’s “no scope for negotiation” because the Chinese tell him that
mica is still valued at a low price once it arrives there.
And he concedes it’s “very clear” the Chinese are taking advantage of the Malagasy
people who perform the mica mining in hazardous conditions.
“We’re suffering,” Solange says. “We’re working extremely hard for a very, very
small amount of money.”
A family affair
Under a tin roof set atop a thin wooden frame, three children sit in silence as they
pound mica with tools that resemble a socket wrench.
It’s after 1 p.m. at an open-air mica processing center in Amboasary-Sud, a dusty
town surrounded by large tracts of farmland.
One of the children, a 3-year-old girl in an orange and brown striped shirt, looks
up at a visitor and blinks rapidly as her eyes roll into the back of her head. The
girl, her mother says as she breastfeeds another child nearby, was born mute and
with limited vision like her two sisters.
NBC News showed up at the site unannounced. Scattered across a plot of dirt roughly
the size of two football fields were piles of mica and scores of children working
alongside adults to break down the blocks of minerals into the thinnest possible
The site acts as a collection point for area mines that don’t produce enough mica to
cover the cost of trucking it to the port. The workers, mostly women and their
children, spend their days breaking down and cleaning fragments of mica that will
ultimately end up in products pieced together in Asia.
The work here is often a family affair. Seated on a beige tarp in the shade of an
abandoned truck, two children — ages 8 and 5 — pounded down pieces of mica as their
mother picked through her own pile of minerals.
The woman said they typically arrive for work at 5 a.m. and remain there until 6
p.m, earning the equivalent of $3 a week to support herself and her four children.
She said she’d prefer to send her children to school, but she has no husband and
can’t make enough on her own to feed her family. As it is, she said, they eat just
one meal a day: a cup of rice she splits with her four kids.
And they’re not among the worst off.
Nearby, a 26-year-old woman was striking pieces of mica as her 2-year-old clung to
her chest. Unlike most of the others here, they weren’t sitting under a tin roof or
a piece of cloth strapped to wooden posts. The woman and her child were sitting in
the open, fully exposed to the sun, because she couldn’t afford the small section of
fabric to provide shade.
“Give us money to buy food,” the woman said, unprompted.
From this location, the mica is trucked to facilities closer to the coast operated
by export companies. Madagascar has five major exporters, and Tri-H, where Joseph
sends Solange’s mica, is its largest.
When NBC News showed up at the Tri-H headquarters, a two-story all-white building
surrounded by walls, the company’s operations manager agreed to an interview.
The Tri-H manager, Haja Ranahary said he was aware that children work at the mines.
“It’s not our problem. It’s not our fault,” he said, speaking through a translator.
“It’s the fault of the parents of the children.”
Ranahary insisted that he hands out masks, glasses and gloves on his visits to
mining sites. He said he also gives workers food, including sacks of rice. In
contrast to what the local mica workers told NBC News, Ranahary insisted that the
food and the equipment he supplies are “gifts” and are not deducted from the payment
He described mica mining as a “poor man’s business,” but he said the people living
in the region would have nothing without it. “Thanks to the Lord, Fort Dauphin is
the main place, a huge, important place for mica,” Ranahary said. “Because if it
wasn't for the mica, all of the people out there would become malasu” – the slang
term for bandits.
“They would be stealing cars,” he added.
“The Chinese company is taking advantage of the people who are doing the hard,
backbreaking and perhaps very dangerous work,” he said.
Ranahary said his company has sought to solicit orders from companies based in
countries other than China. But in over three years of trying, he said, Tri-H hasn’t
received a single response.
Companies say they had no idea
The final stop for the region’s mica is Port Ehoala, located about six miles from
Tri-H relies on two shipping companies based here, including CMA-CGM, the largest
transporter in Africa. In an interview, Anselme Sambotiana, the CMA-CGM branch
manager, confirmed that in July alone the company shipped about 580 tons of mica out
of the country, most of it to China.
Sambotiana said he had never traveled to the mica mines and he didn’t give a clear
answer when asked if he was aware that children are working there. After being shown
photos of child laborers, he became visibly uncomfortable and asked if he could have
copies of the images to show his management team.
“That makes us emotional to know that there are children working in those
conditions,” he said.
The government of Madagascar, where labor laws prohibit anyone under the age of 18
from working in mines, did not return requests for comment.
The mica stored in CMA containers travels by ship across the Indian Ocean to
Shanghai and then by truck to sites controlled by one of two large Chinese import
companies, Pamica and Pingjiang VPI Mica Insulating Materials, according to shipping
records reviewed by NBC News.
These firms turn the mineral shards into component parts that end up in products
sold by such companies as Panasonic, Electrolock and CRRC, a Chinese
government-owned rail equipment manufacturer that has signed deals to produce trains
for Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston.
In an interview at a CCRC facility in Springfield, Massachusetts, company president
Jai Bo said he had no idea mica used in their trains were mined by children. “We
have to do some investigation with our suppliers,” Bo said.
Joe Williams, the president of Electrolock, an Ohio-based company that provides
battery insulation to the military, said he was concerned to hear of anyone working
in mica mines and processing centers under intense heat and dangerous conditions.
“It is especially disturbing to hear of families with children working under these
conditions,” Williams said, adding the company sources about 4% of its products from
China. He said Electrolock was reaching out to its supplier to pursue the issue.
Panasonic said its supply chain guidelines “expressly prohibits the use of child
labor and require suppliers to treat all workers with dignity and respect. Breaches
of our supply policy are not tolerated.”
“Panasonic supports human rights, safe working environments and environmental
consciousness,” the company added.
Some mica mined in Madagascar by small children flows into a stream of mica mined
from India, making it nearly impossible to pinpoint in which company’s products it
Several major American companies depend on sheet mica, which Madagascar
exports in higher amounts than any other country, raising questions about the
materials used by a range of companies including: Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, Boeing,
United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Isovolta, a company that
makes interior plane parts.
Three of the companies — United Airlines, Isovolta and Alaska Airlines — didn’t
respond to requests for comment.
The others insisted they have protocols in place to help ensure that no child labor
is involved in acquiring the natural materials that end up in their products.
Ford said it regularly communicates with its suppliers to “monitor the responsible
sourcing of mica.”
“Ford aims to ensure that everything we make – or others make for us – is produced
consistent with our own commitment to protecting human rights and in adherence with
local law,” Ford said.
Fiat-Chrysler said it “engages in collaborative action with global stakeholders
across industries and along the value chain to promote and develop our raw material
Virgin Atlantic said it asks its suppliers to comply with standards that include
“providing safe and fair working conditions for employees” and “not using child
labor defined as anyone under 15 years of age.”
Boeing acknowledged that suppliers may “incorporate minerals into components at an
early stage of their manufacturing process,” but said it expects the suppliers to
comply with its policies on basic working conditions and human rights.
In Washington, a pair of senators, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.,
vowed to take action after being shown the footage of children working in
Madagascar’s mica mines.
“It has to be stopped,” Brown said. “I have grandchildren that are that age. I have
seven grandchildren, six of them are under 7 years old. It’s just imaginable to
think of my grandchildren doing this.”
Brown and Wyden sponsored legislation in 2015 to close a loophole that had allowed
the U.S. to import products made by forced labor, including child labor, if the
goods could not be obtained elsewhere.
In an interview, Brown and Wyden said they plan to address the issue in upcoming
hearings with Customs and Border Protection officials and they might even use the
NBC News footage of Malagasy children working in mica mines to illustrate the need
to crack down on products built off their labor.
“If we can shine the hot light of visibility and accountability, which your stories
will help us to do, that can help us clean up the supply chain,” Wyden said.
Thangam Ponpandi, a Terre des Hommes expert on mica mining who took part in the trip
to Madagascar, argues against actions like mass boycotts of the companies that use
mica mined by Malagasy children.
“If the consumers stop buying, they don't have anything to eat,” he said. “They are
going to literally die. So what we want is the companies take responsibility in
finding the traces from where the materials are sourced, and they are sourced in a
Ponpandi said the work his group has done in India provides a road map for improving
conditions in Madagascar.
Like Madagascar, India has struggled for years with surging numbers of children
working in its mines. But starting about three years ago, Terre des Hommes poured
resources into the northern region of India known as the mica belt.
The organization helped create more than two dozen child care centers, trained local
teachers, bolstered school lunches and launched programs focused on counseling and
mentoring children whose lives previously revolved around working in the mica mines.
The contributions have yielded significant results. The region was home to an
estimated 22,000 child laborers in the mica sector in 2016. But the number was cut
in half by 2018, according to figures from the Indian government.
Ponpandi said the situation in Madagascar closely resembles what was playing out in
India before the nonprofit stepped in.
“This can be easily replicated there,” he said during a tour of the facilities in
India over the summer. “The only problem is, we may not find this kind of
‘The dust comes inside of us’
In the southern Madagascar region of Taranta-Bas, where Manjoraza lives and works,
the closest hospital is unreachable by foot and the fees for the lone school are
beyond what most people can afford.
NBC News first encountered the boy while he was crawling through a tunnel inside a
mica mine with six of his cousins, ages 8 to 15. Their arms and legs were covered in
dust. The air, thick with sediment, was hard to breathe.
Manjoraza and the other children walked deeper into the darkened mine until they reached his aunt who was crouched down on the ground, a head lamp strapped to her head, sifting through mounds of earth.
“We cough a lot,” the aunt said. “The dust comes inside of us.”
Manjoraza returned to his work, loading piles of sand and rocks into a yellow bucket with holes cut out of the bottom — a makeshift sieve. He shifted it side to side until only hard objects remained. He then dumped the rocks and minerals into a pile in front of his aunt who picked through them to identify the pieces of mica worth collecting.
Manjoraza said he’s worked in the mine for two years, starting when he was 8. He said he now has has pain in his lower back, he coughs a lot, and he sometimes has vision problems. But when asked if he ever gets scared while working in the claustrophobic tunnels deep underground, he answered with no hesitation.
“We are many here,” the boy said.
Lisa Cavazuti, Christine Romo and Cynthia McFadden reported from Madagascar, and
Rich Schapiro from New York.
Lisa Cavazuti is an associate producer for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Christine Romo is a senior enterprise producer at NBC News.
Cynthia McFadden is the senior legal and investigative correspondent for NBC News.
Rich Schapiro is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.