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Corporates fail to check child labour deaths in mines

Thomson Reuters Foundation Dec 30 2017, 23:57 IST
Mining

Mining

Since 12-year-old Laxmi Kumari was buried alive in a mica mine eight months ago, her family's grief has turned to despair on realising promises by global companies to end child labour in the mines in eastern India have so far led to nothing.

Just over a year ago, an investigation found children in India were dying in the depths of crumbling, illegal mines for the prized mineral that puts the sparkle in make-up and car paint - but their deaths covered up.

The discovery that seven children had died in two months alone prompted pledges by multinationals sourcing mica from India to clean up their supply chains, and state authorities vowed to accelerate plans to legalise and regulate the sector.

During a visit to the major mica producing areas in India's Jharkhand and Bihar states in recent weeks, it was found that children were continuing to die in these remote, abandoned "ghost" mines.

Interviews with local communities, government officials and charity workers, along with local newspaper reports, revealed at least nine people, including Laxmi and three other children, have died in collapses at unregulated mines this year.

Laxmi and three others from her village in Jharkhand's Giridih district, including a teenage girl, died on May 1.

By the time her mother Parwatiya Devi got word that the mine had collapsed and made the one hour trek from her village to the makeshift mine, it was too late.

"We dug with our bare hands. We found my younger daughter who had clawed and dragged herself out of soil despite her broken leg," said Parawatiya, sitting beside the 10-year-old who could still barely walk, outside their mud home in Duba village.

"But Laxmi was dead by the time we found her. She was not breathing. There was no life in her."

Campaigners fear the toll is likely much higher than nine as bodies are often not recovered from the rubble, or are quickly and silently cremated in the forests by mine operators. Yet as children continue to risk their lives, an initiative set up in January and backed by multi-billion dollar companies to end child labour in mica supply chain by 2022 has failed to have any tangible action on the ground, they said.

The Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI)-whose 39 members include cosmetics firms Estee Lauder and L'Oréal, and German drugs and chemical group Merck KGaA - has raised little funds, and village activities to curb child labour have not started.

"The RMI is an initiative with a lot of promise, yet it has in the last year failed to live up to that promise," said Sushant Verma from Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation (KSCF), a charity working to end child labour in mica mines for over a decade that initially supported the RMI.

"Could the companies have done more? The answer is yes. They had a year and yet there is little to show on the ground. Children are dying in these mines, but there is no sense of urgency to really tackle the problem."

The Paris-based RMI, however, said its first year was a "preparation year" dedicated to setting up the organisation, enlisting members and raising funds. Projects to improve the lives of rural communities are expected to begin next year.

"When I compare many other initiatives, it's incredible that already around 40 members have decided to join and take action altogether and have a five-year programme with real impact," said RMI's Executive Director Fanny Frémont.

"I don't think it could have been done any quicker. You need to align all the stakeholders. It's actually a very short time if you compare it to similar organisations."

RMI members such as Merck KGaA dismissed claims the poor show of funds in 2017 - around 4% of its targeted budget of $12 million-reflects a lack of commitment from corporates.

Many companies have also dedicated resources, such as staff time and expertise, which cannot be monetised, they said.

"The year 2017 was a preparation phase for RMI set-up and even not a full year for collecting contributions," said Matthias Lergenmueller from Merck KGaA, which holds RMI's vice-presidency and will take over as RMI president in January 2018.

"The increased number of members by 2017 year-end and higher contributions of individual members will certainly make sure the full budget will be reached for the entire project duration at RMI, namely for the implementation phase starting 2018."

India is one of the world's largest producers of the silver-coloured mineral found in a list of consumer goods from make-up and car paint, to electronics and construction materials.

Once boasting over 700 mines with over 20,000 workers, the industry was hit by 1980 legislation to limit deforestation and the discovery of substitutes for natural mica, forcing most mines to close due to cost and stringent environmental rules.

But renewed interest in mica from China's economic boom and a global craze for "natural" cosmetics saw illegal operators scurry to abandoned mines, creating a lucrative black market.

Campaigners estimate this illegal trade accounts for some 25% of the global production of mica and involves up to 50,000 child workers.

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