By Marisol Bernal Corredor
Indian authorities have announced that they will begin the process of legalization mica mines in Eastern India, after a series of investigations that revealed the deaths of children working in these illegal mines.
Mica is a mineral found mainly in India which helps to brighten the tone of colour pigments, making it indispensable in achieving the shine that we see in makeup products and car paints today. This mineral is known for being environmentally friendly, but has a worrying estimated presence of around 20,000 child workers in mica mines in India. A boom for natural products has made the cosmetic industry grow its interest in this mineral, but it is important for one to question, at whose expense do we develop these organic and natural products?
Children responsible for collecting mica
An investigation by Thomson Reuters Foundation found children from five years old to be working in mines, and exposed to high risks with the possibility of death. Most mica mining in India is illegal, but it is the only income that some families see. Therefore, many must hide the truth of their reality for fear of being discovered and being left without any livelihood. Mica production has been developed by taking advantage of the poorest in areas where the only possible source of income is mining. As well as the adults, children are made vulnerable to the risks of illegal mining, with most working long days with low incomes, and permanent absences from school.
The transformational power of multinational corporations
The global supply chain in the cosmetic industry is complex - most of the products originate from illegal mines, where they are sold to agents in town. They are then further vended to intermediaries near trading centres before being sold to exporters. The intermediaries do not check whether mica comes from legal or illegal mines, which then leads multinational companies to incorporate into their products, illegally obtained mica, as the Thomson Router Foundation showed.
Multinational corporations need to understand the importance of their role in society, especially in developing countries. Transparency in global supply chains will help to identify human rights abuses and in this way to find a system to tackle them. Multinational corporations can and should help the development of societies in which they reside.
With regard to India, the biggest responsibility should be taken by the Government, which has delayed the legalisation and regulation of mica mining. However, impact that businesses have in society should in no way be disregarded. Initiatives like ‘Child Friendly Villages’ lead by the Non-governmental Organisation Bachpan Bachao Andolan - which seeks to ensure that children go to school instead of working - are important and will remain in time as long as multinational corporations are involved in them. Companies must put all their efforts into developing and enforcing a policy to increase transparency in their supply chain and try to address the problem, becoming part of the solution rather than drivers of the problem.
Time for legalisation
The Indian government announced that it would begin the legalisation of mica mining, which will allow for regulation of the sector and create better conditions to help eradicate child labour within the sector. The authorities will first sell the dumps of scrap mica and then auction off old mica mines and other reserves for mining, DNA India has said.
The need to legalise mica mining has always pressing. It is its illegal nature the major cause which puts at risk the human rights of so many all over the world. However, activists and analysts warn that something more is needed than legalisation to end child labour. The Guardian explains that high poverty levels in mica mining areas mean that families cannot afford to send children to school, so they will be forced to continue working. Therefore it is necessary for adults to earn fair wages and to work in decent conditions, in order to improve their lives.
The Indian government’s efforts to legalise mica mining are significant, but it is now time for the government to also demonstrate its commitment and ability to enforce its laws by providing better working conditions. It should therefore implement appropriate regulation for the sector as well as effective protection for children. The state duty to protect human rights cannot be forgotten.
Marisol Bernal Corredor is an Intern at the Business, Human Rights and the Environment Research Group (www.bhre.org). She is a Colombian lawyer and was formerly diplomatic assistant to the Colombian Consulate in Aruba.