Coal Miner's Day - Children involved in the beauty industry

7 minute
Coal Miner's Day.png

A Beauty Secret That’s Dark, Disturbing, And Far Too Young: Taking A Look At Child Labour In Coal And Mica Mines In India

As most children across the country get dressed to go to school in the mornings, some find themselves crawling into steep chutes with makeshift ladders to dig out mica and coal from rocks using a pickaxe and a flashlight. Mica is used to add shimmer and gloss across a diverse set of cosmetic products, from high-end eyeshadow palettes to drugstore lipsticks. Often listed as “mica,” “potassium aluminium silicate,” and “CI 77019,” its delicate shimmer makes it an invaluable addition to modern makeup products. And 60% of high-quality mica found in most such products comes from India, often from the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Meghalaya where child labour and exploitation are rampant.

Most go-to brands and cosmetic manufacturers are guilty of sourcing this particular ingredient from these chutes, also known as “rat holes,” which is why, this coal miner’s day, it’s imperative for us to reflect on how something as seemingly inconsequential as painting our lips red might leave us with blood on our hands. And while children across all social strata are vulnerable, those that are not privileged enough to have access to healthcare, education, a safe home, or even a meal a day often find themselves having to fend for their family at the mercy of an industry that is driven by profits and not much else.

Child Labour Laws Are Merely Legislation


This is not to say that there aren’t laws in place to protect children. Child labour is most certainly forbidden in India and the federal parliament has decreed it mandatory for children aged 6 and above to receive education. Several state laws prevent the employment of anyone under the age of 18 in a hazardous industry by making it a non-bailable offence. To round things off India’s 1952 Mines Act explicitly prohibits coal companies from hiring a minor (under the age of 18) to work inside a mine.

Despite this, child labour is an open secret across many Indian states like Jharkhand and Meghalaya. Upon enquiry by NDTV, Impulse Network, an NGO based in Shillong (Meghalaya), stated that more than 70,000 underage labourers work in these rat holes. Several adolescents aged 14 and 15 come in to work from neighboring states as well as Nepal and Bangladesh. Experts and on-field reporters have several theories regarding the failure of the implementation of child labour laws in India. Some state that the mine owners happen to be the ones in charge of passing laws in the regional parliament. With lack of transportation and funds to keep a check on work laws, work inspectors don’t end up looking into the legality of mining as often as they should. Others state that the owners of these mines spend their profits on investments and cars instead of paying their workers and, hence, like keeping labour cheap by employing children. Children are also most likely to be able to fit into these narrow “rat holes.” Furthermore, Meghalaya in particular is exempt from this particular law due to its special status as a North Eastern state with a tribal population. This means that in certain sectors like mining, customary laws trump national regulations and land owners can dig for coal without having to put any safety measures in place. These loopholes as well as factors like illegal trade, invisible players, and a large market, make it difficult for the rights of children to be protected.

Several Brands Can’t Resist A Good Deal On Mica

Once sourced, Mica transfers hands several times before it is exported. A loophole is exploited here as well. While the mining of mica is banned, once it’s exported it’s no longer strictly illegal. Invisible players, often influential and powerful, control the price and volume of the said trade which is usually done in tonnes. Transportation is tricky and involves hiding the mica and paying a lot of bribes until it reaches a manufacturer. Post this, the system does not challenge the export or trade of mica. In fact the Bihar Mica Act of 1957 allows for the legal trade of manufactured mica. This is possibly why the export of the mineral has survived in the state. All that the legislation has possibly achieved is to lower India's position as the top exporter of mica to the eighth place as deduced by the data provided by the Indian Minerals Yearbook.


China is the biggest importer of India’s mica and once the raw material is received, it’s milled into a fine, pearly pigment that international brands use to add a sheen to eyeshadow, blush, lipstick, bb creams, moisturizers, lip gloss, and more. There’s no denying that everyone in this supply chain has a lot to gain financially since the low cost of labour allows for lower costs of procuring mica, but cosmetic brands especially get access to high-quality ingredients at low prices which ups the profitability of their products. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that most such companies look the other way in order to get a killer deal on this natural ingredient.

However, is the solution to this simply pulling out of India? Experts and laborers disagree by stating that taking away the opportunity to earn a living might worsen lives for many children who depend on it for their next meal.

Children Pay The Price Of Affordable Cosmetics With Their Lives

A day of slaving away in these dangerous rat holes might put a measly 200 rupees in the pockets of these children, but that is far more than their parents would earn as daily wage labourers. This could be why miners are sometimes as young as 9 years old. Mine owners exploit this need of money since children can fit into these narrow spaces and their labour comes cheap. Meanwhile a simple bribe gets the police to look the other way. But there’s a price that children pay each time they go into these rat holes that far exceeds the profits companies make off of them and that is their health and life itself.

Young miners reflect on horrific accidents caused by collapsing roofs and damages caused by earthquakes and flash floods, especially during monsoons.  Years of uncontrolled drilling also make the rat-holes unstable and prone to collapsing at any moment. Those that are caught in these have a low chance of survival since hospitals are both expensive and difficult to reach. Families state that the traders who own the mines have a set rate they give to the loved ones of those who do not survive an accident, often amounting to 30,000 rupees at best but even this is considered rare. Needless to say, there are no safety measures put in place for the children and compensation of any kind is rarely ever paid to injured children.

Besides this, each time they climb down a bamboo ladder, children descend as low as 70 meters into narrow galleries no wider than their shoulders. Not only is the oxygen low and breathing difficult but inhaling the dust in mica mines has been found to cause infections, disease, and permanent damage to lungs.

A 2016 investigation by Reuters found that young miners regularly lost their lives to this trade and that fatality counts were often botched due to cover ups by local officials. Estimates range between 10-20 deaths per month and police reports are either never filed or not acted upon.

Regardless of death and injury, it’s business as usual in coal mines.

Alternative Sources Of Income Seem Far Fetches

Considering the profitability of mica and the fact that these mines are unregulated along with the fact that there are no other industries in the region, most families are left with no choice but to continue sending their children into these dangerous mines. This has led to the growth of several informal organizations, referred to sometimes as “mica mafia,” wherein family mining is encouraged and young children are preferred for their small stature and nimble hands that can enter narrow spaces and sort through mica. This causes the classic resource curse where despite having an abundance of natural resources, a developing country is unable to utilize them well enough to protect the rights of citizens and further the economy.


The Difficult Road That Lies Ahead

There’s no denying that the mica in the makeup we have at home has a small chance of being ethically sourced but there’s no way to tell just by looking at the ingredients list. A few international brands like Lush, have completely switched to synthetic mica but several continue to procure mica that is the product of exploitation. In part, this is due to the ambiguity of the supply chains around the mineral which leave no room for transparency. Despite standards set by the Indian government, several third party certification companies are corrupt and verification processes are rarely ever thorough.

Some brands like L’Oréal, Estée Lauder Companies, LVMH, Coty, Chanel, and Shiseido, keeping in mind the complex and sensitive nature of this industry, have joined hands with working groups that strive to keep the procurement of mica ethical and transparent. Several others are turning to India-based nonprofits that can navigate the cultural, socioeconomic, and governmental factors that drive this issue.

A few initiatives go straight to the source and work with children to help them speak for themselves through hands-on meetings. Young miners are acquainted with their rights and familiarized with issues like child marriage, teen pregnancy, child labor. Parents are assisted in finding additional revenue streams so the children don’t have to support them. Two such organizations are the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation and Bachpan Bachao Andolan which help turn children into their own activists by giving them a voice.

That said, progress can be achieved faster if everyone in the supply chain, from the miners to the consumers work to instil change. As the latter, you could contribute by holding your favourite brands accountable and keeping the conversation going through social media. As you seek information and encourage awareness, you’ve the potential to inspire change that could have young miners out of dark and dingy spaces and into brightly lit classrooms

report Report this post