Among the China-made products on the lengthy list of goods subject to newly-implemented tariffs is a seemingly arbitrary item: mica – both in its powdered and crude forms. The silicate mineral joins the likes of handbags, furniture, electronics, cottons and silks, and cosmetics that are impacted by the whopping 25 percent tariff imposed by the Trump administration in its escalating trade war with China.
Hardly an innocuous item, mica – a term that is used interchangeably with potassium aluminium silicate and CI 77019 – is a core component in nearly every shimmery beauty product. It can be found in Kylie Cosmetics’ eyeshadow palettes, YSL’s Touche Eclat All-Over Brightening Pen, Dior’s Dreamskin foundation, and Glossier’s Vinylic Lip shine – just to name a few.
The glittery mineral – which is commonly used to give a shine to automotive paints and building materials, and acts as an insulator in electronic chips – is not noteworthy only because it is expected to become more expensive as a result of the recently-raised U.S. government tariffs, a cost that will likely be passed on to consumers, but due to a far more ominous reason: how it ends up in China in the first place.
While mica is derived from mines all over the world, the high-quality mica flakes that come from mines located in the dense forests of Bihar and Jharkhand make Eastern India a top producer of the mineral. Together, Bihar and Jharkhand are responsible for approximately 25 percent of the world’s production, according to the Guardian, and with “some of the world’s biggest cosmetics companies, including L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, as well as suppliers such as Merck, sourcing mica from India,” it is “one of the top producing countries in the world.”
Before being “collected by a broker who sells it to an exporter, who then delivers it to a manufacturer, typically in China,” as Refinery29 noted in connection with its own look at the common cosmetic ingredient, the valuable mineral must be excavated from the earth – a dangerous job that is typically done by children, most of whom work without shoes and “some are as young as five years old.”
“Armed with ice picks, hammers, and baskets,” children in Bihar and Jharkhand “carefully chip into the sides and backs of the small pits to loosen rock and dirt debris before carefully hauling it out of the mines,” including ones as small as rabbit holes. For “between 20 to 30 rupees for a day’s work, or $0.29 and $0.43 cents, some 22,000 Indian children “take turns dumping their baskets over a rudimentary sifting tool that reveals handfuls of mica.”
With their small bodies, children are particularly able to creep “into narrow mine shafts.” Their little hands, the Thomson Reuters Foundation noted are “ideal to pick and sort the mineral” from dirt or rock, which is precisely why many of them are working at mines in Bihar and Jharkhand, where roughly 90 percent are unregulated – instead of attending school even though Indian law forbids children below the age of 18 working in mines and other hazardous industries.
Hazardous this job is. “Abrasions and broken bones are part of daily life in the mica mines,” German news site, Spiegel revealed in a lengthy report on the prevalence of children in the mica trade. They “are afraid of scorpions that hide under the rocks – and then there is the quartz dust that they stir up and breathe in,” which can lead to immediate health issues, such as respiratory infections like bronchitis, but also stands to “make them more susceptible to tuberculosis and cancer.”
Still yet, the risk of death is significant. While “there are no official figures on child deaths in the mines as [such work is] illegal,” Spiegel reported in 2017, non-governmental organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan (“BBA”) has been recording “between 10 and 20 deaths in collapsed mica tunnels” each month. “We hear about them through our networks in the villages where we work," Raj Bhushan, BBA's Jharkhand Project Coordinator, told the publication.
BBA has been working with cosmetics giants, such as Estée Lauder, L’Oréal and Yves Rocher, as well as with local communities and governments to “to improve educational infrastructure and living conditions” in furtherance of an effort to get children in 500 villages in Eastern India “into school instead of mining.”
Other companies have switched from natural to synthetic mica in light of child labor concerns. British cosmetics company Lush, for instance, was prompted to make the switch after its head of ethical trading Simon Constantine “said he knew something was amiss when armed guards were needed to accompany auditors to one Indian mine supplying their mica.”
Officials at Merck told Spiegel that because they had little confidence in the Indian authorities, they “took their own initiative a decade ago to find responsible suppliers who adhere to worker safety standards and do not employ children in their mines.” Together with other global corporations, such as Chanel, Sephora, Coty, and consumer electronics-maker Philips, Merck has established the Responsible Mica Initiative with the goal of ending child labor in the mica mines by 2022.
Other companies, such as Glossier, which produce products with mica have stated that they “only partner with those who use ethical labor practices.” But Spiegel’s reporters Marius Münstermann and Christian Werner are skeptical. Is it actually possible for even the most well-meaning companies to adequately monitor their suppliers given “the complex and opaque nature of the mica trade,” they ask?
The general consensus amongst journalists and researchers seems to be no.