Beauty, Essays

The Hidden Labour of Beauty: Child Labour and Mica

When we see information about cosmetics production, we typically see images of scientists working hard in the lab to create that perfect formula. Or we see models, actresses and social media influencers giving the makeup positive reviews and feedback. These images do not reveal the whole truth. There is an entirely other, darker dimension of cosmetics production: child labour.

Child labour is usually not top of mind when we think about the cosmetics industry. You may be vaguely aware of it, but the full extent of child exploitation is quite shocking.

A great deal of makeup contains mica, a mineral prized for its shimmery qualities. It can be milled to a fine powder, and is ideal for eyeshadow palettes and highlighters. Unfortunately, it is often mined by children and youth in underdeveloped countries. 

Mica-producing countries where child labour has been found or is suspected.
Source: World Vision Canada

Where is this happening?

A quarter of the world’s mica comes from illegal mining in India. Over 22,000 children work in dangerous conditions that put their health and life at risk. A 2016 Reuters study exposed the deaths of children in Indian mines, many of which went unreported. Although Indian law technically forbids child labour, it is still prevalent across many impoverished areas. The investigation found “children as young as six squatted among glittering rocks scouring with their bare hands for shiny, brittle mica flakes, while older ones descended rickety ladders into shafts seeking better quality silicate”.

What are the effects on children?

Child miners are exposed to hazards that can lead to chronic lung diseases. They also have to work near explosions, or in underground mines that can cave-in at any time. Instead of attending school, these children spend their days doing hard labour.

Despite the significant health and safety risks, children working in mica mines earn only $1.87 to $2.18 (CAD) a day.

Third parties buy mica after it has been extracted from these mines. They then transport the mineral to the nearest trading centre, where they sell to other parties or directly to exporters. Pigment producers purchase the mica for manufacturing, and then sell it to the cosmetics brands we see on shelves. The supply chain of mica is really complex, making child labour challenging to address.

What have companies been doing about it?

It is difficult for even the most sincere companies to control this; Lush cosmetics has struggled to eliminate mica from the supply chain. Their solution was to begin using artificial mica that is completely free from child exploitation. Other companies, such as Estee Lauder, Loreal and Yves Rocher, have committed to “child-friendly” villages. These are intended to empower communities by providing resources for infrastructure and education. This has helped, but there is still a long way to go. (Sidenote: You can help children around the world with a donation to Room to Read)

The Canadian cosmetics market is expected to grow to $15.8 billion (USD) by 2021. Canadian consumer demand for makeup products that normally contain mica has increased by 136% since 2008. In 2016-2017, 60 companies imported $798.2 million (CAD) of these products into Canada. There is a significant risk of child labour in their supply chains.

65% of these companies do not report what measures are being taken to prevent child labour-produced ingredients from entering their products. This lack of information makes it really hard– if not impossible – for consumers to assess whether the companies that produce their favourite brands are taking adequate steps to protect children from exploitation. 

Since this labour is hidden, the average person is not aware of how their purchases may be perpetuating this supply chain.

Some corporations have taken formal stands against child exploitation. The Responsible Mica Initiative was established with the goal of eliminating child labour from the mica supply chain by 2022. Brands such as Burt’s Bees, L’Oréal, LVMH, and Sephora have signed on. India-based non-profits may be in a better place to address this problem. They can apply their understanding of the unique cultural, socioeconomic, and governmental factors that drive this issue.

What can we do about it?

If products don’t indicate where the ingredients are from, how can we avoid supporting companies that source materials from child mines?

We can buy ethically: look for companies that are transparent about their labour practices, and have demonstrated a commitment to addressing child labour in their supply chains.

And we can share our knowledge about the risk of child labour in cosmetics with her friends and family.

We can spread the message on social media, encouraging others to learn more about the hidden labour in the cosmetics industry

And we can also contact our favourite cosmetics brands, and ask them what they are doing to ensure their supply chains are free of human rights violations and to make this information publicly available.

It’s only when we actively seek to uncover these obscured layers of infrastructure that we can understand the complex dynamics of the everyday items we take for granted.

Read about mica-free brands here!

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