All that glitters: Labour exploitation in India’s mica industry

7th May 2021

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Terry Payne

In the second part of their report on Indian mica mines and processing units, Pranav Sinha and Nidhi Gupta explore the industry’s endemic labour rights violations.

Animal testing seems to be a bigger social issue across the globe than the health, safety and welfare of the human beings who are forced to work for a pittance in the wretched working conditions of India’s mica mines and mica processing units. Even as consumers have started looking for tags indicating that their drugs and cosmetics have not been tested on animals, they remain comfortably oblivious to the plight and despair of those whose lives and futures are endangered by their work, and who are often working for less than a dollar a day.

Turning a blind eye

India’s mica reserves are among the largest in the world, and are of a better grade than those found in other countries with large reserves, such as China and Brazil. Two Indian states, Bihar and Jharkhand, account for 25% of global mica production, and the mineral is also found in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. In many places, entire villages depend on mica as their sole source of income.

Mica is often described as a ‘natural’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ additive, and consumers have a charmed relationship with it. Multinational corporations’ strong and sustained demand for high-grade Indian mica is combined with absent or ineffective regulatory enforcement mechanisms and rampant corruption in various government departments. This has allowed the mica miners and industrialists to operate with impunity for decades, regularly violating basic regulatory requirements concerning worker welfare, human rights and safety.

While several multinational corporations have conducted supply chain audits and are aware of the prevailing conditions, they choose to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of the most vulnerable members of their industry, and continue sourcing mica from India owing to its high quality and affordable price. From a review of publicly available information, it appears that Indian regulatory bodies do not have any data on the number of lives that have been lost to the industry. So what are the key labour concerns for Indian mica workers?

Child labour

Mine owners pay workers per kilogram of mica collected, so it is common to find entire families – including children – involved in collecting and sorting mica. While multinational corporations specify that they require child labour-free mica, and Indian suppliers certify their mica as such, the reality is very different. Despite labour regulations prohibiting the employment of children, a third of mica mine workers are under 12, including children as young as five. The number of child workers in the Koderma and Giridih districts of Jharkhand state, for example, was estimated to be between 18,000 and 20,000 in 2016.

Minimum wage

Workers are hired on contract and can be paid 30%-40% less than the minimum wages mandated by the government. Rates paid to mine workers range from eight to 25 rupees (around 10 to 40 US cents) per kilogram of mica. Daily wages range from 80 to 250 rupees (around one to three US dollars).

Employers also do not arrange for Provident Fund – which helps employees save for retirement – to be paid to workers. They circumvent this requirement by hiring most workers as temporary or contract labourers.

Wage discrimination

In processing units where wages are fixed (ie not linked to the quantity of mica), it is common for women to be paid less than men. If a man earns 100 rupees per day, a woman doing the same work is likely to be paid only about 70 rupees per day. Due to their poor financial state, the women have no option but to accept this unfair practice.

No maternity or sick leave

Mica mines and factories do not allow workers paid leave – not even when they are unwell, or when women are pregnant. Each day of leave is a day without income for the worker; with no social security net and minimal savings, labourers are forced to work through illness in hot, dusty conditions, while women have to work until the very end of their pregnancies.

Working hours

While statutes limit working hours to eight hours per day, with at least one in every seven days off, mica workers are made to work for 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week. If they take a day off, they will not only lose a day’s earnings but also risk losing their job for good.

Lack of basic facilities

Working conditions lack basic amenities such as toilets, shaded areas for rest and mealtimes, privacy for women workers, clean and cool drinking water, and first aid kits. This often forces workers to take extraordinary measures.

Women are worst affected: in a bid to avoid having to urinate in the open, many choose to severely limit, or even cease, water intake from the morning onwards. Combined with the hot climate of the region and the physical activity involved in the work, this often results in severe dehydration and associated health risks. In the absence of first aid provision, most injuries and illnesses go unattended and unreported.

Occupational illnesses

Mica workers are forced to work in high-dust environments with little or no protection. Dust masks are rarely provided, and where they are, they are not replaced as required. Workers are known to have a much higher incidence of respiratory deficit and associated illnesses due to long-term exposure to mica dust, as per published studies. Long-term inhalation of mica dust causes lung scarring, which can cause coughing, shortness of breath, weakness and weight loss. Exposure to dust, mica and silicates also enhances the probability that a person will contract tuberculosis and suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders (COPD).

A study in 2001-02 among mica workers (not miners) in Giridih, Jharkhand, showed that 33 of the 420 workers were suffering from respiratory problems, including COPD and coughs with breathlessness. Other chronic illnesses that have a high incidence among mica workers include musculoskeletal disorder, partial or total loss of hearing, and diminished vision.

Lack of medical facilities

The lack of first aid kits is compounded by the lack of appropriately equipped and staffed health centres and hospitals in the vicinity of the mines and processing units. Most of the miners and factory workers have tales of injuries that went unreported and untreated, or were treated using home remedies.

Public pressure

In 2016, Raj Bhushan, Jharkhand project coordinator for child protection group Bachpan Bachao Andolan, told Reuters about the numbers of child fatalities in the mica industry. “Although there are no official figures on child deaths in the mines, as it is all illegal, we hear about them through our networks in the villages where we work,” he said. “Normally we hear about 10 fatalities on average a month, but in June [2016] we documented over 20 deaths.”

This state of affairs is unacceptable. In a world where consumer is king, it falls to us to set the process of change in motion. There are three simple actions that consumers can take:

Speak to your representative: Indian voters must ask why workers' welfare and safety is not an issue in our elections – the largest democratic exercises in the world.

Ask questions and select products wisely: We must demand information from cosmetic manufacturers and paint and electronics companies on where they are sourcing their raw materials. We must find out what these corporations are doing to keep their nail varnishes, lip glosses, car paints and mobile phones untainted by human misery and exploitation.

A good first step in this direction would be to start looking for certifications and marks that assure humane, equitable and sustainable supply chains. Such programmes already exist for several types of goods, such as the chemical industry’s Together for Sustainability programme, the pharmaceutical industry’s Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Initiative, and the electronics industry’s Responsible Business Alliance.

A start has been made with the setting up of the Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI) in 2016; this aims to eradicate child labour in the Indian mica supply chain within five years. The consortium now has more than 50 members, including mica mine owners and suppliers, NGOs and multinational corporations that use mica in their products, and holds the promise of a better future for mica workers. However, how quickly the RMI makes progress will depend on how much consumers value the industry’s efforts in this direction. Only when we start asking the right questions will the industry be spurred to do more and better.

Require public disclosure: In their annual reports, we must ask corporations to report on matters related to the labour rights and safety of workers in their extended supply chains.

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