Ugly Side of Glam: How Child Labor Is Used to Get the Shimmering Look

May 16, 2019

By Spencer Feingold

In the northeastern Indian states of Jharkhand and Bihar, it is not uncommon to see children walking around rural villages with shimmering skin and sparkling clothes. But the kids are not being flashy. They are covered in mica — a mineral mined in the region and used in beauty products around the world.

The use of child labor to mine mica has plagued the beauty industry for decades, leading consumers and top brands to take action against the practice. Yet a recent report from Refinery29 found that despite the efforts to create an ethical supply chain, transparency remains elusive and child labor continues to be the norm.

“Children are not only mining this mica, but children are dying in the mines,” Lexy Lebsack, the host of Refinery29’s investigative series “Shady,” told Cheddar.

Lebsack visited mines in Jharkhand in January to report on the issue, meet with the child laborers, and see how effective major brands and labor advocacy groups have been at safeguarding children.

“We would pull up to the mines and kids as young as 5 years old would come out of holes in the ground with sparkly cheeks,” she said.

Mica is used in everything from car paint to plastic products but is especially prevalent in makeup, specifically shimmering products like sparkling eyeliner, nail polish, and lip gloss. Once extracted, illegally or unethically mined mica is often exported out of India through middle men and added to the global supply with little record of where it came from.

“You might think you are getting a product that is more natural and more eco-friendly because of this natural ingredient, but the supply chain is incredibly dirty,” Lebsack said.

An estimated 20,000 children are mining mica and are exposed to extremely dangerous working conditions, according to Terre des Hommes Netherlands, the Dutch arm of the international Switzerland-based children's rights organization. The children come from roughly 300 impoverished villages and produce over 25 percent of the world’s total mica production.

“Child labor is the consequence of the raging social and economic challenges that populations from the Jharkhand and Bihar mica belt are facing to maintain a livelihood,” Fanny Fremont, the executive director of the Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI), told Cheddar.

‘At The End of the Day Children are Dying in These Mines’

The working environment is also incredibly treacherous for children’s safety with fatal accidents happening routinely, Lebsack found. Collapsing mines pose the greatest risk to children and fatalities at illegal mining operations are rarely reported to police. Long-term mica miners also face deadly lung diseases from inhaling harmful particles underground, which are especially threatening to growing children.

The children often work in the mines after school to provide extra money for their families or forgo primary school years altogether.

“Because of the level of poverty, the lack of quality education infrastructures, and the absence of alternatives, children often end up dropping school and 'helping' their parents digging pits, crushing, washing, or transporting mica to collecting points,” Fremont said. The RMI was founded in 2017 to unite companies, NGOs, and other stakeholders in an effort to create an ethical mica supply chain and eliminate child labor in Jharkhand and Bihar by 2022.

Aware of the issue, beauty companies have pursued a number of strategies to ethically source mica and eliminate the use of child labor. Major brands such as Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, and Sephora have all joined the RMI to increase investments in the local communities and identify illegal mines.

“L’Oréal has committed itself to remain in India and ensure the traceability and transparency of its supply chain,” the French beauty giant said in a statement. On the other hand, companies like Lush in the United Kingdom have switched to using 100 percent synthetic mica.

“We need to restructure the system, and that is going to take a lot of work, and a lot of it is going to fall on the brands that are buying this mica,” Lebsack said, adding that beauty conglomerates should not pull out and abandon the unethical supply chain they helped create.

Lebsack added that companies and NGOs should instead take their lead from the families working in the mines who made two simple demands: higher wages and safer mining standards.

Despite the public concern from activists and international conglomerates, the Indian government has largely dragged its feet on the issue, which is made all the more complicated by the isolated geography of the mines, India’s enduring caste system, and the extreme poverty in the area. Illegal mines, which proliferated after the government stopped renewing mining licenses following the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, have also largely been tolerated by the authorities, according to Terre des Hommes.

In 2018, however, the government of Jharkhand did sign an agreement with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Kailash Satyarthi, whose eponymous foundation supports “child friendly villages” and is dedicated to eliminating child labor from mica mining

“It is a really complex and layered issue because of all the issues happening in India,” Lebsack said. “But at the end of the day children are dying in these mines.”

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Alyssa Julya Smith: SHADY is Refinery29s hit series

Alyssa Julya Smith: going inside the culture on

Alyssa Julya Smith: controversy of the beauty world.

Alyssa Julya Smith: One of the latest episodes

Alyssa Julya Smith: covers the shocking [NOISE] intersection of

Alyssa Julya Smith: child labor and the way some of our makeup is produced.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Joining me now to tell us all about it is Lexy Lebsack.

Alyssa Julya Smith: She's the senior beauty editor and host at Refinery29.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Lexy, thanks so much for sitting down with me today.

Lexy Lebsack: Alyssa, thank you for having me.

Lexy Lebsack: I'm so excited to shed more light on this subject.

Alyssa Julya Smith: I'm very excited to learn more about these subjects.

Alyssa Julya Smith: I think most people don't even know what this is.

Alyssa Julya Smith: I didn't know until I, uh,

Alyssa Julya Smith: started tuning in to, uh, the series.

Alyssa Julya Smith: So let's, let's go into this new episode.

Lexy Lebsack: Yeah.

Alyssa Julya Smith: And mica, um, which most people

Alyssa Julya Smith: haven't even probably heard of but it's

Alyssa Julya Smith: in a lot of our makeup.

Alyssa Julya Smith: So tell us what you learned when you

Alyssa Julya Smith: visited rural India about

Alyssa Julya Smith: how this is sourced and wh-

Alyssa Julya Smith: where we find it in our products.

Lexy Lebsack: Yeah. Uh, so mica is a word that a lot of

Lexy Lebsack: us know but we don't quite know exactly what it is,

Lexy Lebsack: but it's really simple, it's a mineral.

Lexy Lebsack: It is in a lot of products,

Lexy Lebsack: it's in cosmetics, it's in car paint, it's in toothpaste.

Lexy Lebsack: It's basically this natural

Lexy Lebsack: mineral ingredient that is found

Lexy Lebsack: often in India and it

Lexy Lebsack: gives all of our products a little bit of shimmer,

Lexy Lebsack: a little bit of radiance,

Lexy Lebsack: that kind of lit from within

Lexy Lebsack: glow that everyone wants in makeup right now.

Alyssa Julya Smith: That highlight that.

Lexy Lebsack: Yeah.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Is all the rage.

Lexy Lebsack: That highlight, exactly. So mica has

Lexy Lebsack: been mined in rural India in

Lexy Lebsack: the states of Jharkand and Bihar

Lexy Lebsack: for decades but it's really [NOISE],

Lexy Lebsack: really [NOISE] getting a lot of attention right

Lexy Lebsack: now because at 2016,

Lexy Lebsack: [NOISE] Thomas Reuters investigation basically said

Lexy Lebsack: that children were dying while mining this mica.

Lexy Lebsack: So that's shocking obviously,

Lexy Lebsack: and so we went to India to kind of see where it's

Lexy Lebsack: at now and to kind of see what's happening on the ground.

Lexy Lebsack: And what we found was that children are not

Lexy Lebsack: only mining this mica but

Lexy Lebsack: children are dying in the mines,

Lexy Lebsack: children are getting hurt in the mines,

Lexy Lebsack: and there's no transparency in any of

Lexy Lebsack: the supply chains for the cosmetics industry.

Lexy Lebsack: So basically, 22,000 children are mining mica right now.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Wow.

Lexy Lebsack: In the states of Jharkand and Bihar,

Lexy Lebsack: and the majority of the makeup or the mica sorry,

Lexy Lebsack: that goes into cosmetics

Lexy Lebsack: comes from India, and so- [OVERLAPPING]

Alyssa Julya Smith: Wow.

Lexy Lebsack: There's this real disconnect

Lexy Lebsack: and you might think that you're getting

Lexy Lebsack: a product that is more natural or mo-

Lexy Lebsack: more eco-friendly because it

Lexy Lebsack: has this natural ingredient. [OVERLAPPING]

Alyssa Julya Smith: Wait. Mica make natural beauty,

Alyssa Julya Smith: green beauty right now.

Lexy Lebsack: Yeah.

Alyssa Julya Smith: But we're not always looking about what's

Alyssa Julya Smith: going on behind to source it.

Lexy Lebsack: Yeah, exactly. And so

Lexy Lebsack: the supply chains are incredibly dirty.

Lexy Lebsack: It's really complex and layered issue

Lexy Lebsack: because of all of the issues

Lexy Lebsack: that are happening in India. [NOISE]

Alyssa Julya Smith: Right.

Lexy Lebsack: There's a caste system issue,

Lexy Lebsack: there's the government, there's

Lexy Lebsack: all of this stuff happening.

Lexy Lebsack: But at the end of the day,

Lexy Lebsack: there are children dying in these mines.

Alyssa Julya Smith: It's so sad and has the Indian.

Lexy Lebsack: It's- yeah.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Government responded to any of this at all?

Lexy Lebsack: Not really.

Alyssa Julya Smith: No.

Lexy Lebsack: I mean, a little. But like we sat down with

Lexy Lebsack: one minister in New Delhi and basically they

Lexy Lebsack: have been aware of it for many years but

Lexy Lebsack: just because of the amount of

Lexy Lebsack: poverty that's going on there,

Lexy Lebsack: it just seems a bit like something

Lexy Lebsack: that they're not quite tackling,

Lexy Lebsack: and that's obviously really upsetting.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Upsetting. And what-

Lexy Lebsack: Yeah.

Alyssa Julya Smith: About the cosmetic brands? Are, are people getting, uh,

Alyssa Julya Smith: you know aware of this or the companies,

Alyssa Julya Smith: or are they being complacent?

Alyssa Julya Smith: And I'm assuming these are a lot of

Alyssa Julya Smith: really big cosmetic companies.

Lexy Lebsack: Yeah.

Alyssa Julya Smith: As well-

Lexy Lebsack: So-.

Alyssa Julya Smith: And Beauty brands?

Lexy Lebsack: Yeah, exactly.

Lexy Lebsack: So the way the cosmetics industry is structured for

Lexy Lebsack: people who don't know is basically

Lexy Lebsack: a lot of multinational,

Lexy Lebsack: uh, it's likely corporations

Lexy Lebsack: own the majority of makeup brands.

Lexy Lebsack: So a lot of these corporations have sort of become aware,

Lexy Lebsack: I mean they've known for a while,

Lexy Lebsack: but a lot of them have become aware

Lexy Lebsack: of what's going on and they've

Lexy Lebsack: joined one working group in particular called RMIs,

Lexy Lebsack: The Responsible Mica Initiative,

Lexy Lebsack: and they're slowly and steadily

Lexy Lebsack: putting together a plan to kind of, uh,

Lexy Lebsack: create this ethical, sustainable,

Lexy Lebsack: and totally transparent supply chain surrounding mica.

Lexy Lebsack: Uh, because one of the things that you might assume is

Lexy Lebsack: the right thing to do would be to

Lexy Lebsack: pull out and to stop buying this mica,

Lexy Lebsack: but the reality is that

Lexy Lebsack: the cosmetics companies as well as

Lexy Lebsack: other industries that have yet to get involved, um,

Lexy Lebsack: have created this entire system

Lexy Lebsack: that's happening on the ground there and so

Lexy Lebsack: unless we really think about the people who are

Lexy Lebsack: mining the mica and the systems that

Lexy Lebsack: have been set up by these,

Lexy Lebsack: you know, by these corporation,

Lexy Lebsack: then we're not really doing

Lexy Lebsack: the people who are mining it justice. So-

Alyssa Julya Smith: Okay.

Lexy Lebsack: It's a complex issue.

Alyssa Julya Smith: It is complex. So in your opinion

Alyssa Julya Smith: since you've been on the ground you've seen it,

Alyssa Julya Smith: you work in the beauty world.

Lexy Lebsack: Yeah.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Um, is it alternatives we should be

Alyssa Julya Smith: using or we really have to restructure

Alyssa Julya Smith: that whole system which-

Lexy Lebsack: We need-

Alyssa Julya Smith: Is a lot harder-

Lexy Lebsack: We need to.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Than just finding an alternative?

Lexy Lebsack: Unfortunately, we need to restructure the system,

Lexy Lebsack: and that's going to take a lot of work and a lot of it is

Lexy Lebsack: going to fall on the brands that are buying this mica,

Lexy Lebsack: and they need to really get on the ground

Lexy Lebsack: there and they need to start making moves.

Lexy Lebsack: There are a lot of non-profits and NGOs that are on

Lexy Lebsack: the ground there that we worked with

Lexy Lebsack: to kind of see this different side of things.

Lexy Lebsack: Um, one is that Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation.

Lexy Lebsack: So if someone wants to get involved, you know,

Lexy Lebsack: from here, um, we're very far from India. So it's a-

Lexy Lebsack: Right.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Little overwhelming but you can don- donate to

Alyssa Julya Smith: the Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation, um-

Alyssa Julya Smith: Right.

Lexy Lebsack: You can check that out in the article on Refinery29,

Lexy Lebsack: but, uh, yeah it's, um.

Lexy Lebsack: We can't just pull out.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Right.

Lexy Lebsack: Because if we just pull out then- then

Lexy Lebsack: we're basically leaving all of these families

Lexy Lebsack: that have no other means of making

Lexy Lebsack: money to [OVERLAPPING] basically be

Lexy Lebsack: left to- left with nothing.

Lexy Lebsack: So it's like when we were on the ground it's

Lexy Lebsack: like you can- you can talk to

Lexy Lebsack: corporations and you can talk to people who aren't

Lexy Lebsack: involved and you can be like,

Lexy Lebsack: you know, what should you do?

Lexy Lebsack: But at the end of the day, like,

Lexy Lebsack: what I did as a reporter is

Lexy Lebsack: we just asked the people on the ground.

Lexy Lebsack: We asked people who are mining the mica,

Lexy Lebsack: like, what do you want to happen? You know, do you want-

Alyssa Julya Smith: What was their- their response?

Lexy Lebsack: And their response was all exactly the same,

Lexy Lebsack: which is that we want to be paid more for this mica.

Lexy Lebsack: We don't want our children in the mines.

Lexy Lebsack: We want to be paid just a little bit

Lexy Lebsack: more and that way we can [OVERLAPPING] our families.

Alyssa Julya Smith: The kids won't have to leave school to

Alyssa Julya Smith: go do this and they're eight years old.

Lexy Lebsack: Bull's eye. Bull's eye. Younger. Some of the kids

Lexy Lebsack: we met in the mines literally we would pull up to

Lexy Lebsack: these mines and kids as young as

Lexy Lebsack: five years old would come

Lexy Lebsack: out of holes in the ground with like sparkly cheeks.

Lexy Lebsack: It was the wildest thing that I've ever seen.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Wow. Now just to

Alyssa Julya Smith: open it up a little bit for like larger trends,

Alyssa Julya Smith: I mean, the beauty and fashion world.

Alyssa Julya Smith: I mean, this is not unique that

Alyssa Julya Smith: there's you know unfair practices going on.

Lexy Lebsack: No. No. Off course not.

Alyssa Julya Smith: And- and it seems like the solution really is to

Alyssa Julya Smith: restructure but draw attention to it.

Alyssa Julya Smith: And do you think that with

Alyssa Julya Smith: the beauty trend that's continuing to

Alyssa Julya Smith: grow we're gonna need to find

Alyssa Julya Smith: a solution as quickly as possible for this?

Lexy Lebsack: Yes, 100 percent. I mean one of the reasons why Refinery

Lexy Lebsack: 29 is doing the series, Shady,

Lexy Lebsack: that we're talking about here,

Lexy Lebsack: is because the beauty

Lexy Lebsack: industry- I've been covering beauty for a long time,

Lexy Lebsack: the beauty industry is about to have a massive reckoning.

Lexy Lebsack: And that's partially because it has

Lexy Lebsack: operated without a lot of transparency for

Lexy Lebsack: so long but the growth

Lexy Lebsack: that the beauty industry has had just

Lexy Lebsack: in the past few years has been so- so big.

Lexy Lebsack: Um, so especially younger generations.

Lexy Lebsack: So when maybe Jen Zee or older

Lexy Lebsack: millennials maybe you thought that fashion was, you know,

Lexy Lebsack: what they were interested in or like

Lexy Lebsack: the right bag or the right shoes or something like that,

Lexy Lebsack: well, the younger generation they

Lexy Lebsack: really are into self-expression through beauty.

Lexy Lebsack: And so as the beauty industry continues

Lexy Lebsack: to expand and it continues to grow,

Lexy Lebsack: we're gonna be continually met with

Lexy Lebsack: these obstacles where we have to look at

Lexy Lebsack: where we're getting our ingredients and how basically

Lexy Lebsack: the developing world is

Lexy Lebsack: subsidizing the cosmetics industry in the United States.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Wow. Lexie, thank you so much for joining me

Alyssa Julya Smith: and sharing this story and bringing

Alyssa Julya Smith: it all to our attention. [OVERLAPPING]

Lexy Lebsack: Thanks for having me.

Alyssa Julya Smith: I appreciate it. All right.

Alyssa Julya Smith: Lexy Lebsack,

Alyssa Julya Smith: Refinery29's senior beauty editor and host of Shady.

Alyssa Julya Smith: You can watch new episodes of Shady Saturdays

Alyssa Julya Smith: on YouTube and refinery29.com.