Child labour is the shameful stain on many manufacturing industries, such as chocolate, garment and cosmetics, and there is little evidence that things will improve, unless individuals take action.
In July 2009 the Sunday Times (UK) reported that the cosmetics industry was sourcing mica that had been mined using child labour in the Jharkhand state in eastern India. Due to the remoteness of Jharkhand and political agitation by violent Maoist insurgents, there has been little help available in the form of government or non-government support, apart from the work of local NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood).
Mica is a much sought after mineral pigment that gives makeup a reflective appearance and BBA’s Abha Duggal and Martin Punaks reported that the majority of local children were working with their parents collecting mica from open-cast mines – a dangerous activity.
Duggal and Punaks wrote that: “Scavenging in the rocky ground, child miners risk snake and scorpion bites, whilst digging holes they risk being buried alive by collapsing slag piles, they also regularly suffer from cuts and skin infections and the mica dust can cause respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis, bronchitis, silicosis and asthma.”
This situation has a negative effect on the whole community because the children are missing out on the education which could lift them out of the poverty trap and prevent the ongoing cycle of child labour.
BBA’s approach in the region has been to establish some basic schools and to persuade parents to let their children attend the schools, but the effect was limited in the face of the corporate forces that create the demand for mica and fail to effectively monitor their supply chains. However after the Sunday Times report, the tide seemed to be changing.
Three months after the article appeared, a conference of mica traders, corporate agents, community leaders and child labourers agreed the best solution was to ensure children had access to free education, using an adapted version of BBA’s ‘child friendly village’ model which has proved successful at preventing child labour in other parts of India.
BBA describes a ‘child friendly village’ as one where all children are removed from work and enrolled in school; a children’s village council is elected and given official recognition by the adult village council; and civil society groups are supported to maintain a child friendly culture. In the mica mining regions the ‘child friendly village’ model was to be adapted to incorporate an economic element involving the regulation of the collection and sale of mica at a grassroots level through economic community groups, rather than individuals, to reduce the incentive to use child labour.
Despite the optimism and BBA’s work, the mica mining continues unabated and was the subject of a feature in today’s Melbourne Age which focused on the adolescent children toiling in Jharkhand.
So what can be done? Trying to choose ethical brands is difficult, partly because of the lack of clear, credible information, even on sites specifically presenting themselves as purveyors of ethical choice. Consumers can demand that their cosmetic brands supply them with assurances that they are not relying on child labour, but even with the best of intentions this can be hard to do, as the provenance of the ingredients may be impossible to determine if there are multiple suppliers. Boycotting brands can be counterproductive if it removes the only source of income from a poverty stricken community – and this is not just a cosmetic issue. Mica is also used as an insulator in electronic goods such as mobile phones, computers, televisions and smart toasters.
It would be nice to provide a simple solution but there isn’t one because this issue stems from our voracious appetite for cheap goods. I paid half as much for my last computer as I did for my first one, more than 20 years ago (when my salary was about one-third of what it is now). Perhaps we need to start paying prices that reflect the true cost of our lifestyles.
Another factor is the support of organisations such as BBA which are trying to promote education, particularly among the lower castes. India’s Human Resource Development Minister Shashi Tharoor – who is currently in the news for a very different reason – said that when he is asked what was the single most important thing that could be done to improve the world, he has a simple reply “educate girls”. Tharoor said:
“It really is that simple. No action has been proven to do more for the human race than the education of female children. Scholarly studies and research projects have established what common sense might already have told us: if you educate a boy, you educate a person; but if you educate a girl, you educate a family and benefit an entire community.”
To find out what an American teenager is doing to support the education of his peers in Jharkhand, head over to our sister site, Velo-city.