What is mica?

If you own an eyeshadow or any sort of makeup that promises to give you that sought-after dewy glow, then you most likely own a product containing mica. Basically, it’s the name given to a group of silicate minerals that can be ground down and used to add shimmer to beauty products – from blusher and eyeshadow to foundation and nail polish. It’s also added to some plastics, inks and paints, including for cars, as well as being used in electronics like hair dryers and toasters and as a filler in the construction industry.

Illegal mines, child labour and poverty

It’s not mica – a naturally produced mineral – that is itself the issue. Instead, it’s the way that the mineral is mined. The majority of mica is extracted from India and China: the Indian states of Jharkhand and Bihar have the largest deposits of the mineral in the world, accounting for an estimated 25 percent of global production. A shocking 90 percent of the mines are illegal. Both states also have some of the highest poverty rates in the country, and literacy rates are below average – two factors that are key causes of child labour.

And that’s where the problem lies: child labour is rife in the mica mining industry in these two states. A 2016 report by NGOs Terre des Hommes and SOMO estimated that 20,000 children work in mines in the region – some of them as young as five years old. While some children hammer away at rock fragments, others sort rock debris or sieve the mica to remove dust. Many work underground, with some having to mine in tight, 10-metre-deep spaces. Children will work all day – up to eight hours – and not go to school. Others begin working after their school day finishes. The region’s extreme poverty means that every member of a family is expected to work and earn a living. As well as missing out on a normal childhood and education in order to carry out gruelling work, the children are also exposed to silica dust (which can lead to lung disease), and risk broken bones, heatstroke, scorpion bites and cuts. Several have also been killed by mine roofs collapsing, with the deaths of seven children reported in a two-month period alone.

What is being done?

Since 2005, when NGO AID India reported that there were 18,000 child labourers in mica mines in the state of Jharkhand alone, some positive changes have been made. India’s government has opened many more schools in the two states, and an initiative led by Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) to make 500 villages in the region ‘child-friendly’ has seen 2,200 children enrolled in schools. Many of the brands that use mica in their products have also taken note, with companies like L’Oreal committing to sourcing mica only from legal and fenced mines and avoiding the informal sector where child labour is common. It’s not a straightforward solution however, as tracing the origins of the mineral is difficult: mica may be bought and then sold by intermediaries, meaning that legal and illegal mica become mixed. Even beauty brand Lush, which is known for its natural products and ethical practices, has struggled to live up to its commitment to remove all traces of natural mica. The company moved to using only synthetic mica, but later found that this also contained traces of the natural mineral.

Despite these attempts, the huge increase – 75 percent – in the amount of mica being exported from the area has likely also increased the number of child labourers, and the current estimated number is no lower than it was 13 years ago, in 2005.

What can you do?

Next time you buy makeup or any beauty product, carefully check the ingredients for mica – if it has it, leave it on the shelf. A report by DanWatch, an independent non-profit media and research centre, found that only four out of 16 companies questioned could prove that they aren’t using mica that has involved child labour, including UK skincare brand Green People. Boycotting mica is just the beginning, however; efforts to eradicate child labour altogether have to be made by both companies and governments, at the local, national and international level. As consumers, we can also have an impact, by voting with our feet (and our money) and buying only from brands that ensure ethical practices within their supply chains.

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