Go through your makeup bag for anything that glistens, sparkles, or glitters, and chances are it contains mica. The naturally produced mineral dust, commonly found in cosmetics and paint, is used to give products a sparkly, reflective quality. But advocates warn that its international trade and supply chain is tainted by child exploitation.
Humans have been beautifying themselves with mica since the 14th century, proving the adage that no society is ever too ancient to make themselves look fabulously tacky. Only difference is, medieval children probably weren't working in appallingly dangerous conditions so that we could contour like Kim at wallet-friendly prices.
A recent investigation by British broadcasters ITV found kids working in illegal mines in India's mica-producing heartland, the eastern Jharkhand province. Children as young as six were filmed smashing large chunks of mica into smaller rocks, while workers at the illegal mine toiled underground with no safety equipment.
Although child labor is not totally illegal in India—children aged over 14 are allowed to work in non-hazardous environments—working in mica production would be in violation of Indian labor laws. Mohan Baranwal of the Local Mica Traders' Association denied the existence of child laborers to ITV, despite video evidence to the contrary. "No, no—kids don't go to mines," he said. "The parents work at the mines and the kids go to school."
India produces most of the world's mica, and 75 percent of that comes from of illegal mining. It's estimated—official figures don't exist, as accidents in the mostly-illegal trade aren't reported—that between five and ten children die in mines each month, with even more adult fatalities. Around 20,000 children work in these mines, forced into the industry by the grinding poverty in India's Jharkhand and Bihar providences, where mica production is based.
As well as being denied an education, child miners often contract long-term health conditions—inhale too much silica dust, and you may develop silicosis, a life-threatening lung disease. And that's without the dangers of potential mine collapses.
"Mica mining in India is tainted not only by child labor but also by debt bondage of adult workers and businesses must realize the risks that these practices pose to their supply chains," says Aiden McQuade of Anti-Slavery International. "The industry should work to ensure that adults are paid living wages and not in debt bondage, so that they don't send their children to work in the mines."
Alongside the cosmetics industry, mica is often used by car manufacturers looking for a pearlescent paint effect. A Guardian investigation from 2016 found that suppliers for Vauxhall, Volkswagen, and BMW were linked to mines reliant on child labor. Businesses are beginning to do more: In February, beauty brands including L'Oreál and Estée Lauder launched the Responsible Mica Initiative, which pledges to eliminate child mica production by 2022.
"Mica is not a problem, nor is mica mining," says Liz van Velzen of child relief agency Terre des Hommes. She explains that mica extraction—done responsibly—can help lift the entire populations out of poverty. "If the mining companies would pay living wages and make sure working conditions met international standards, parents would be able to work safely and earn enough to provide for their families and send their children to school."
I ask van Velzen what consumers should do. "They could pressure cosmetic firms by asking for child labor free cosmetics, specifically asking cosmetics firms to only use mica that is exploitation free." Consumers who want to avoid mica altogether can use brands such as Lush, who committed to removing mica from all their products in 2014. However, van Velzen argues it's better not to boycott mica altogether, but pressure business to improve the labor conditions for workers—given that many are reliant on the mica industry for their income.
As long as consumers want to beautify themselves, the mica trade—with all its attendant victims—will persist. But without meaningful change from consumers and corporations, our vain delight in all things sparkly will continue to have a spectacularly ugly human cost.