Glimmerland: Human rights in the mica supply chain

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A satellite image-based investigation by Vertical52 reveals the extent of child labor in illegal mines in India that produce mica, a critical mineral for the tech industry. The research illustrates the need for stricter rules for companies like the ones the EU proposes in its draft directive on corporate sustainability due diligence. The investigation also shows that comprehensive solutions have to go beyond import bans and corporate liability.

mica mines
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Comprehensive solutions to child labor in the mica industry must go beyond import bans and corporate liability

Globally active companies are under pressure to clean up their supply chains, but the world’s hunger for raw materials has increased risks of human rights violations and pollution. Mica (glimmer) is a critical material for the tech and car industries, and it is also used in cosmetics and paint. A quarter of the mica on the world market stems from India, and estimates suggest that a majority of that stems from illegal mines that use child labor.  The “Glimmerland” investigation – a project supported by the Heinrich Boell Foundation Washington, DC and Brussels, European Union – shows that more joint efforts of governments, industry, and civil society will be needed to find solutions.

Based on the analysis of satellite data and journalistic research on the ground, this investigation by Vertical 52 reveals that, despite efforts by industry, policymakers and civil society, the area of illegal mica mines in India has expanded over the past years. Child labor remains a common practice, and in the observations of locally active NGOs has further increased when schools were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Vertical52’s analysis of data from NASA's Landsat satellite detected a high concentration of surface mica in the Indian state of Jharkhand. A close-up investigation using Maxar data as displayed on Google Earth shows that the area of mines that had officially been closed, had in fact tripled in area compared to 2016. An Indian journalist traveled to the region and found children like the teenage girl Nazneen who are scraping the glittering substance off the walls of poorly secured mine shafts instead of attending school. Lethal accidents are common, as Indian media reports show.

In 2017, the Responsible Mica Initiative, a coalition of more than 75 global companies, pledged to “eliminate unacceptable working conditions and eradicate child labor” by 2023. In the meantime, the group has changed this target year to 2030. The initiative includes carmakers BMW, Daimler and Porsche, chemical and pharmaceutical companies BASF and Merck as well as cosmetics producers and retailers L’Oreal, Shiseido and Sephora, next to a range of Chinese and Korean tech companies, but also the children’s aid organization Terre des Hommes.

EU push to move to hold companies accountable

Around the world, policymakers are trying to move beyond voluntary commitments to corporate social responsibility to improve human rights and environmental sustainability in supply chains. In its proposed directive on corporate sustainability due diligence, the European Commission wants to mandate accountability for companies with more than 500 employees and annual sales of more than 150 million euros and impose legal sanctions for human rights violation or pollution under certain conditions – a threshold that exceeds the German Supply Chain Act (Lieferkettengesetz) of 2021, which currently only applies to companies starting from 3,000 employees. According to European Commission estimates, a total of 13,000 companies in the EU and 4,000 non-EU companies would be affected by the new law.

In the United States, a comparable comprehensive legislative approach is not in sight. The U.S. administration is in the process of updating its National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct on the basis of principles defined by the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Department of Labor and other agencies provide guidance and grants – from a $4.5 million grant to combat child labor in mica mining in Madagascar to an interagency initiative to support global workers’ rights. But the Biden administration has taken a leading role in stepping up enforcement – of the labor provisions of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement and of the import ban for products manufactured with forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province.

During the 2021 State of the Union Address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the intention to introduce a ban on the import of products made with forced labor. The European Parliament had previously called for creating an “effective traceability mechanism for goods produced through forced labor,” which it states, “could pave the way for a complete ban on the importation into the EU of goods produced through modern forms of slavery or forced labor, especially forced work of vulnerable groups extorted in violation of basic human rights standards.”

Such instruments are an extreme measure to punish countries for systemic human rights violations. Corporate due diligence laws are needed to address most other cases, in which companies fail to verify whether they are sourcing a product from a responsible manufacturer. In the case of mica from India, the export statistics suggest that many importers would rather not look too closely. According to open source document research by Vertical52, less than a third of the 150,000 tons of mica that leave the country each year according to India’s export statistics is reflected in the production statistics published by the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM). The mica from mines that operate illegally is not accounted for.

Satellite data analysis is effective tool for tracking supply chains

Vertical52’s satellite data analysis shows how images from space could play a role in tracking supply chains in a range of industries. But the interviews with those working in the mica mines are a reminder that a real solution is far more complex than tracking violations and eliminating problematic imports. There are alternatives for mica that work for cosmetics and paints, but the tech and car industries cannot substitute the critical mineral so easily due to its unique properties like high heat resistance and conductivity.

Life in the impoverished Indian state of Jharkhand would not improve if its mica mines were disconnected from the world market. This is why the organization Terre des Hommes calls for legalizing those mines – under the condition that local authorities mandate safe working conditions and fair pay – and send children like Nazneen to school. At the same time, the rising appetite for mica conflicts with the environmental and social imperative to reduce the extraction, consumption and processing of raw materials. This is why any sustainable longer-term solutions will also have to create alternative livelihoods for the population of Jharkhand.

You can read the full investigation, published by ZEIT on May 6, 2022, here.