Every morning, Pooja Bhurla wakes up next to her grandmother on the charpoy woven cot that they share in the small entry room of her family’s home. She doesn’t mind that they sleep at an arm’s distance from her family’s small flock of goats; at 11 years old she thinks that sharing a room with animals is kind of cool.
Pooja pulls on a pair of yellow leggings and an embroidered green dress, slips on her brown flip flops, and drapes a bright pink scarf over her shoulders. Some days, she helps sweep the concrete floors or babysits her two younger brothers, but most mornings she gets up early with her father and heads for the mines.
The two trudge along a dirt trail that snakes through the outskirts of the small village where they live. Like sparkly breadcrumbs, mica leads the way. What starts as a fine sheen turns into large silver shards as you get closer to the mines. When they arrive, kids are already pouring out of holes in the ground, their cheeks and clothes caked with glittery dust.
Pooja and her friends — some as young as five years old — will spend the rest of the day shimmying into small, man-made tunnels in embankments all around the area. Armed with ice picks, hammers, and baskets, they carefully chip into the sides and backs of the small pits to loosen rock and dirt before carefully hauling it out of the mine. The children take turns dumping their baskets over a rudimentary sifting tool — a large piece of netting with a wooden frame — that reveals handfuls of mica, a shimmery mineral composite that’s been forming underground for hundreds of years.
If Pooja’s lucky, she’ll make between 20 to 30 rupees for a day’s work (converted to roughly 29 to 43 cents in U.S. currency at time of publication). Not only is her work keeping her from attending school, but it also puts her in harm’s way every single day. If a mine collapses while she’s inside — a daily risk for the estimated 22,000 kids that work in the mica mines in neighboring states of Jharkhand and Bihar — it could leave her injured, paralyzed, or dead. It’s a risk she’s all too aware of. The tops of her hands are already scarred from sharp, fallen rocks and she often thinks about a boy her age who died in a nearby mine when it collapsed.
Pooja has no idea where the mica goes after it’s sold to brokers in town — she just knows that it’s the only way to feed her family.
The Beauty Industry’s Darkest Secret
Eventually the raw material excavated by Pooja and her peers will be collected by a broker who sells it to an exporter, who then delivers it to a manufacturer, typically in China. It’s then milled into fine, pearly pigment that is purchased by international beauty companies to add a reflective finish to eyeshadow, blush, lipstick, and more. Everyone in the supply chain financially benefits from obscuring the origin of the mica through this complicated turn of hands, because it keeps costs low by allowing exporters to exploit the people mining it.
Mica linked to child labor is littered throughout the cosmetics industry — taking up residency in everything from high-end eyeshadows palettes to drugstore lipsticks. Listed as ‘mica,’ ‘potassium aluminium silicate,’ and ‘CI 77019,’ on ingredient lists, it’s what gives body lotion or eye cream a light glow, makes toothpaste look extra bright, or provides BB cream with a subtle radiance. Unlike chunky glitter often made from plastic, mica’s delicate shimmer is one of the pillars of modern makeup — and 60% of the high-quality mica that goes into cosmetics comes from India, mostly from neighboring regions of Bihar and Jharkhand, where child mining and worker exploitation is the norm.
While some cosmetics companies look the other way after getting a killer deal on the natural pigment, the solution for brands who don’t want to be associated with child labor isn’t as simple as pulling out of India completely. Abandoning the existing sources leaves communities like Pooja’s worse off, but staying in is rife with problems, too. As the industry navigates the complicated issue, children continue to slave in dangerous mines for pennies of what the industry makes for the sparkly cosmetics.
Life In Jharkhand
Mines like the one Pooja works in are scattered throughout Jharkhand and Bihar, more than a 12-hour train ride from the capitol of New Delhi. Locals have mined mica in this part of India for millenia, using it both for decoration and Ayurvedic medicine. But everything changed in the late 19th century, when British colonizers discovered the valuable mineral and nicknamed the area “the mica belt.” By the time India won independence from British rule in 1947, the country was approaching a count of 700 mines filled with 20,000 workers.
Then came the fall: The wealthy, mica-hungry USSR collapsed, creating a mini mica recession, and eventually the Indian government stopped monitoring the mines altogether. The government made mining illegal in the 1980s in the name of preventing deforestation, but failed to actually close mines or redirect workers to new industries, creating an economic vacuum that still persists.
Today mica is in its second golden period with China picking up where the USSR left off. Roughly 70% of mica produced in India comes from illegal mines that are totally unregulated by the government. With no other industries in the region, many families have no choice but to continue working in crumbling mines under a new, informal organization sometimes referred to as the “mica mafia.” Family mining is common, and a young child’s small stature and nimble hands also make them valuable for entering narrow mine shafts and sorting smaller pieces of mica. It’s a classic case of the resource curse, where developing economies are worse off for their natural resources because of exploitation by the developed world.
During R29’s investigation, we came upon mines in Jharkhand with children working who were as young as five years old. Most reported that they didn’t go to school and had been working in mines for as long as they could remember. None of them knew where the mica ended up, but everyone knew the dangers.
Breathing in the dust in mica mines can cause infections, disease, and permanent damage to lungs, but there’s a much more catastrophic risk that worries locals most — and one the Kumari family suffered firsthand. Surma Kumari, 11, and her sister Lakmi, 14, were working in a mine when it began to crumble. When they tried to run, Surma got stuck under a rock and Lakmi was buried under a mountain of debris. Their mother and father were in the village when they heard there had been an accident, but by the time they got to the mine, Lakmi had died. “We couldn’t get her out for an hour,” says Surma, her surviving sister.
Over a year later, Surma is still dealing with the aftermath of two broken feet, a fractured leg, and damage to her spine. Her father borrowed money to get her basic medical care, and she spent weeks in the hospital followed by six months on bedrest at home. One of her legs is now longer than the other, and she can’t run or play. “It still hurts when I walk,” she told us. She stopping mining and returned to school after she recovered, the only bright spot from the entire catastrophe. She doesn’t know if things will get better or worse, but her family is hoping for the best as they adjust to life without her older sister.
Surma’s father, Kishar Kumari, told us that deaths are so common that the traders who control this particular cluster of mines have a set rate they give to families who lose loved ones while mining. “For each person who dies, they give 30,000 rupees [or about $432 in U.S. dollars],” Kishar says. “That was it; they don’t do anything for safety.” Kishar has limited options to make a living, so he still works in the same mines, but stays above ground to sort the mica because it’s lower risk. “There’s no other form of [work],” he explains. “When you’re hungry, there’s no other way.”
A 2016 investigation by Reuters found that not only had children regularly died in these mines, but many of the deaths had been covered up by local officials, making an actual fatality count difficult to nail down. According to Nagasayee Malathy, executive director of Indian advocacy group Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, or KSCF, not much has changed since that investigation. She estimates that there are between 10 and 20 deaths in mines every month, a conservative number based on what we heard on the ground. Kishar never saw the police fill out a report when they came to take Lakmi’s body for examination, and tells us that nothing happened to the traders who control the mine. It was all business as usual.
Cleaning Up The Mess
While the mica in your makeup could have been excavated by an adult, and there’s even a chance they received a fair wage, there’s no reliable way of telling just by looking at the ingredients list. The equivalent of a Leaping Bunny emblem for ethical mica sourcing doesn’t yet exist.
Most cosmetic brands don’t want to talk about mica mining — no matter where they land — but UK-based Lush Cosmetics has been very vocal about its decision. When the brand was tipped off that its supply chain might be dirty in 2014, Lush reps reached out to its suppliers. ”We were told that we couldn't [visit the mines] without armed accompaniment, we couldn't get the independent verification, or the traceability in the origin of it,” says Gabbi Loedolff, Lush’s head of raw materials and safe synthetic sourcing. The brand decided to start swapping in synthetic mica — a biodegradable shimmer pigment created in a lab — and announced its products were totally mica-free as of last year. “We really didn't have much of a choice,” Loedolff told me on a press trip to London where the brand unveiled its position to international editors.
But some experts argue that this ‘cut and run’ tactic can make the situation even worse for the people being exploited. “Pulling out will not solve any of their issues,” says Aysel Sabahoglu, former senior technical advisor of children's rights at Terre des Hommes, a Dutch watchdog group monitoring the mica issue in India. She believes that brands that have contributed to the current situation have a responsibility to clean up the supply chain and become involved in social empowerment programs for those communities. “It’s important to stay in to ensure that the people who are sourcing this mica get a decent price for the raw materials they mine. Only then the cycle of poverty will be broken in those countries,” she says. “Mica is their sole livelihood. They depend on mica.”
All the workers we spoke to on the ground agreed. “We have to take care of the kids and have no other business,” Kishar explains. “How else will we feed them?” Instead, his wish is for brokers to create safer conditions and pay more for the raw materials.
Lush defends its position by saying that its impact was small. “It wasn't a comfortable and easy [decision] to walk away, because once you walk away, you don't have that sphere of influence anymore,” Loedolff adds. “We felt like, by ourselves, we didn't really have the opportunity to change anything in a big industry. So, the only choice we had was to make a switch so that we weren't supporting an industry that didn't sit well with our ethics.”
Most of the biggest cosmetic conglomerates in the world, like L’Oréal — which owns brands like Maybelline, Urban Decay, Essie, Nyx, and more — have gone the other direction. “We believe that discontinuing the use of Indian mica would further weaken the local situation,” L’Oréal said in an official statement to R29. “L’Oréal is committed to the continued sourcing [of] natural mica from India in order to allow already impoverished communities to keep generating income. To do so, L’Oréal ensures traceability and transparency of its whole supply chain to guarantee fair and responsible mica.” The brand says it only buys from suppliers who source from independently-verified, gated mines where children are not present.
But here’s the catch: Experts with representatives on the ground remind us that it’s still too early for any guarantees. Terre des Hommes says that mica collected by children is easily, and often, sold to foreign entities under the license of a legal mine; traders just lie about where they got it. “The majority of mica mining takes place in Jharkhand and Bihar, but there are hardly any legal mines in these states, so the mica from these states is exported using the licenses of legal mines in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan,” Claire van Bekkum, senior project manager at TDH, explains.
The reality is, the supply chains around mica simply aren’t developed enough for anyone to ensure that children are not working, let alone make claims about the safety or wages for adults. Standards have been set by the Indian government, but our sources say that third party certification companies suffer from corruption, and there are issues throughout the current verification processes. Every cosmetics company we reached out to declined to comment on how they guarantee where in India their mica comes from.
Many brands have recognized the complex, deep-seated reliance the industry has created in these communities and have joined working groups in an effort to band together for change, but progress has been slow. One such group is the Responsible Mica Initiative, or RMI, a cross-industry “do tank” that was started in 2017 to create an ethical, transparent supply chain by 2022. Cosmetic conglomerates like L’Oréal, Estée Lauder Companies, LVMH, Coty, Chanel, and Shiseido have all joined.
RMI is totally funded by member dues, which are determined on a sliding scale of the joining company’s annual revenues. Last year, this ranged from $8,400 for brands that make less than $56 million per year to $62,000 for companies that make more than 10 billion, a fourfold increase from 2017 to accommodate RMI’s growing operation. That adds up to over $900,000 for RMI to work with in 2018 alone. But despite these resources, the group is still in its planning stages — and has received criticism as a result.
“We share everyone's desire to move quickly,” says Fanny Frémont, executive director of RMI. “However, our 20 founding members wanted to create a permanent solution to the problem. We wanted not only to get kids out of mines, but also address the underlying causes with a holistic approach that would improve their villages, set sound working standards, and regulate the entire mica sector.”
RMI’s team is only comprised of three people — Frémont is based in France and she has two employees in India — and spent its first two years developing its strategy, but things seem to be ramping up. RMI released its first report in March, and is acting on the goals it carefully laid out. “We're supporting schooling for children, better health care for children and women, and helping villages expand their means of livelihood beyond mica mining,” Frémont says. “Our momentum is building every day.”
To address a complicated issue, many companies are turning to India-based nonprofits who intimately understand the unique cultural, socioeconomic, and governmental factors that drive this issue as well, some of which are also part of RMI.
Children In Charge
One initiative that is boasting impressive returns requires the labor-intensive process of going village by village to mobilize the children — but the results speak for themselves. Organizations like the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation and Bachpan Bachao Andolan are working to create “child-friendly” villages that turn children into their own activists by giving them a voice.
“A child-friendly village is where the children and adults are able to talk about their village development together, collectively,” says Malathy. Through a series of hands-on meetings, they empower kids to understand their rights so they can assemble to fight the issues that impact them most: child marriage, teen pregnancy, child labor, and a lack of teachers and schools. They also assist parents in finding additional revenue streams to support the family while the children are in school.
It’s the kind of work that earned Kailash Satyarthi the 2014 Nobel Prize. His foundations (KSCF and BBA) have freed over 80,000 children from child labor across industries, including 3,000 from mica mines. According to Anna Klein, SVP of global corporate affairs for the Estée Lauder Companies, partnering with BBA was the right choice for its many brands, which includes M.A.C., Clinique, Smashbox, Bobbi Brown, and many more. Estée Lauder Companies decided not to pull out of India when it learned of its connection to child labor practices back in 2005. Instead, it joined BBA on the ground to help create change from the inside out.
Now, on top of giving children an education, BBA delivers legal services to help connect the villages with their government to get the healthcare, education, and infrastructure that they have been denied. “What ensures sustainability is ensuring that the community is able to take on the ownership of these tasks over the long term,” Klein says, noting that this kind of endeavor requires a lot of time on the ground. “Our first visit, we met a group of children who now, 10 years later, are leading these efforts for their communities,” she told R29. For them, it’s a long-term relationship. “At the end of the day, we need to do right by the people we are working with.”
One of the most important parts of the child friendly villages is the Child Parliament, a group of young representatives from each village who come together to discuss pertinent issues. Its current leader is Champa Kumari, 14, a living example of the movement’s success. A few years ago, she was just another kid working in the mica mine. Now, she’s organizing school walkouts for more teachers, demanding meetings with government officials, and uniting children from dozens of villages to expand their reach. “Lots of schools have received new teachers and we will soon have thirteen new teachers [in one village],” she says. “When I was in the mines, my future was bleak, I never thought I would be able to study.”
KSCF is also working toward getting the government to crack down on exploitation by legalizing mining once again, but these child-friendly villages have proven to be the most effective method for real change.
Hope For The Future
The speed of progress lies in the hands of every person who touches the supply chain, from miners to consumers, and until change is widespread, kids like Pooja continue to toil in the mines. She hasn’t gone to school in three years, since she was eight years old, and returning is her biggest dream. “I just want an education,” she says. “If I study, only then can I be something.”
Her dad, Deepu Bhurla, hopes KSCF’s work reaches his village and that Pooja is lucky enough to be added to the list of children who will be sent to school. There’s currently a school in her town, but no teacher. He could send her to boarding school, but he’d have to earn a lot more. It’s not for a lack of hard work: Deepu says he can collect about 50 kilograms of mica per day (about 100 pounds), which he can sell for 3-10 rupees per kg. That means he’s earning between $2 and $8 per day right now, depending on the quality of the mica.
Deepu says his family’s whole life would change if he could sell the mica for between 40 and 50 rupees per kg, which would make him between $28 and $37 per day. “I could send the kids to school, run my household, and construct my home a little better,” he says, but he remains skeptical of that ever happening. While some brands we spoke to report that child labor has or will be fully removed from their supply chains, many declined to comment on how much adults were being paid who work in the Indian mines, a major roadblock to true transparency.
Stories like Pooja’s are overwhelming for average American consumers, but ultimately, we all have far more power than we might realize. You can donate or plan fundraisers for groups like KSCF, Terre des Hommes, or BBA as a start, then pressure beauty brands to be transparent about where they get their mica. Having a supply chain linked to child labor is bad for business — even a few tweets asking questions about a brand’s supply chain can create widespread conversations that could ultimately drive real momentum and change.
“Seeking of information is the responsibility of the consumers,” Malathy says. “You have the right to know if you are buying child labor-free.” You can tweet, DM, call, or write to the brands you use, but don’t give up until you understand exactly where its mica comes from and what they're doing to help the communities that have mined the beauty industry’s mica for decades. Until then, girls like Pooja wait — and work.