This story on Indian children digging mica for western cosmetics companies is distressing but also reminds us why we cannot allow corporations to escape legal responsibility for conditions in their supply chains.
Her face caked in dirt and hair matted with sweat, eight-year-old Lalita Kumari hacks away at pieces of rock containing an elusive mineral that adds a dash of sparkle to lipstick and nail polish. While taking a breather in the hollow of a shimmery sand hill, Lalita says she has not known any other way of life after toiling in the mines of India’s eastern Jharkhand state since she was aged four. “I want to go to school but there is never enough at home for us to eat. So I have to come here and work,” said the pony-tailed youngster, her blistered hands hid behind her back after laying down her pickaxe.
Lalita is among hundreds of children who help their families make ends meet by spending their day collecting mica, their stomachs often hungry while the sun beats down on their heads. Two decades ago the Jharkhand government shut down the mines over environmental concerns but tonnes of scrap left behind continue to lure impoverished villagers. The mica adds glitter to powders, mascara and lipsticks of top global brands although a complex supply chain makes pinning down the exact origin almost impossible, say activists.
The families of the children who collect the mica often sell it to small traders who in turn sell it to big suppliers. In 2009, German pharma giant Merck was accused of using mica mined by children and supplying it to brands such as L’Oreal and Revlon. Merck has since implemented several measures to make sure that “all mica used for the manufacture of our pigments comes from child labour free sources,” the company said in a statement to AFP.
Companies like Revlon might deny they have responsibility and Merck might say they aren’t buying that mica, but of course someone is buying it. Like supply chain management practices around the world, corporations use them to deflect responsibility, obscure sourcing, and in general keep the conditions of labor and procurement as far away from consumers’ sight as possible. Creating an opaque system of supplying serves corporate interests as we might well be outraged by child labor but have no idea who to hold responsible when these companies deny culpability. This is why we need a tremendous amount more transparency throughout the supply chain system, with corporate reports to governments explicitly stating who they are gathering materials from and guaranteeing decent conditions in those places because of financial or criminal implications if they do not. They will complain about all the paperwork. Companies filing paperwork should not get in the way of creating global systems of dignity that give all workers opportunities to live decent lives. This must be central to our demands of corporations now and in the future.
And if you support this current system of supply chains that obscure corporate accountability, this is what you tacitly also support:
Thirteen-year-old Seema Kumari says she can now fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. But she is one of the lucky ones and other youngsters see no end in sight to their labours. “We know mica is used in powder and lipstick,” said Pushpa Kumari, whose weathered features belie her 13 years. “It makes women look prettier,” she said, balancing a tray full of mica on her head. “But look what it does to us.”
There may be nothing we can do if Kumari is working for Indian companies. But if that mica is going into western makeup, those looking the other way need to be held responsible.