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13 May 2022

Die Zeit

India: Investigation finds significantly more illegal mica mines than suspected; child labour a concern in informal sector

"Glimmerland", 12 May 2022

Satellite images reveal far more illegal mica mines in India than suspected - and more child labor than anywhere else. [...]

She is one of more than 22,000 minors digging for mica in eastern India. As a mineral, mica is a sought-after raw material for the automotive, electronics, and cosmetics industries. It is used in almost every aspect of Western life as a component of toasters and hair dryers, lipstick and eye shadow, car paints, batteries, dimmable light switches, and just about every electronic device. [...]

However, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), mining operations such as those involving mica are among the "worst forms of child labor," with the youngest children just four years old. Hundreds of them have not survived the work in recent years, and many have been buried. In fact, on February 8 of this year in Tisri, a 14-year-old girl died after a mine collapsed. "Most of the cases don't even come to light; they are not reported or have been covered up," says Barbara Küppers of the children's charity "Terre des hommes."

According to Indian export statistics, more than 150,000 tons of mica leave India through the port of Kolkata every year, with the country catering to a quarter of the global demand. Most of it comes from the illegal mines of Jharkhand, the land of forests, where forty percent of the population falls below the poverty line despite producing almost half of India's mineral resources. [...]

Pharma company Merck, for example, sends inspectors to the mines almost every month. "Only with detective forensics they could determine which mine the mica really came from," says Olivier Dubourdieu of the RMI. [...]

In fact, companies must avoid or end violations of basic human and labor rights throughout their supply chains, including the extraction of raw materials, and comply with the ILO Core Labor Standards and Convention 182 against the Worst Forms of Child Labor. This is stipulated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The OECD has also developed guidelines for supply chains of raw materials from conflict or high-risk areas for the mining sector. However, mica is yet to be mentioned within them.

Due to come into force next year, the German Supply Chain Act obliges large companies to examine human rights risks among their direct business partners. In the case of mica, these include suppliers for cars or manufacturers of household appliances, cables, batteries, cell phones and computers, cosmetics, or paints. However, a company only has to conduct a risk analysis on raw material extraction at the beginning of the supply chain if it has "substantial information" about abuses, such as studies by human rights organizations. "This leaves it up to civil society engagement to uncover grievances and violations of basic human and labor rights," Küppers says.

Furthermore, at the end of February, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders presented a bill that makes the German law look downright modest. Reynders wants to oblige all companies with more than 500 employees and annual sales of more than 150 million euros to monitor their entire supply chain for environmental, climate, and human rights violations by suppliers. In addition, they should be held liable for violations under certain circumstances. Reynders also seeks to directly link bonus payments for managers to supply chain monitoring. In comparison, the threshold under German law is 3000 employees and does not drop to 1000 employees until 2024. [...]

Meanwhile, exporters like Rajendra Bagaria of Ruby Mica are calling for mica mining to be legalized. [...]

The problem will not be solved without legalization, state the industry and organizations such as Terre des hommes, also a member of the Responsible Mica Initiative. "Only then uniform labor standards can be enforced," says Olivier Dubourdieu. "Only then could mine workers organize themselves into cooperatives or self-help groups to be able to stand up for higher prices and more security with greater bargaining power. That has worked quite well for commodities like gold and cobalt."

At least the local government agreed to a pilot test in early February, and two cooperatives in Giridih and Koderma are to be legalized in the coming months.