The Shadowy Origins of Sparkling Mica
Matteo Dal Lago
Why did you decide to investigate mica for an exhibition on sand?
Mica is a component of sand everywhere around the world. In certain places, however, it’s so concentrated and compacted that it can be mined as a stone, even though it is often processed into a dust. My research looks at the model of mining, transforming, and distributing mica-containing products, with a specific focus on mining locations in India. In most mining regions, the best-quality mica is located deep in the ground and needs to be extracted industrially, but in northeast India and south Madagascar, it is very close to the surface and can be done by hand. That means that mica mining is easy to set up as a family business: male adults go out to look for a mining site, they dig pits into the ground and bring up chunks of earth to the surface. Women and children then sort the mica from the soil and break it up into similar-sized pieces so it can be sold to exporting traders.
Mica tends to be exported from the country of origin in its raw state. It goes from the exporting traders to the importing traders, which process the mica themselves or sell it to other companies who, then, process the raw material for industrial use—for cosmetics, electronics, or construction materials. For example, there can be up to 15,000 components containing mica used in the making of one car. In the case of coatings and cosmetic industries, mica is processed into fine powders and sold to cosmetic producers. The model is pretty simple. The main actors are either the processing companies, or the cosmetic manufacturing companies or the coating manufacturing companies.
Where does responsibility and accountability lie in the mica industry?
On record, more or less all over the world, mica processing companies do not have to perform due diligence in tracking supply chains. This is a key point — if due diligence is voluntary, then it is not possible for any company using mica from northeast India or south Madagascar to guarantee human rights protection and fair working conditions. The problems include not only child labour and exploitative salaries but also health risks including lung cancer from inhaling mineral particles and injury from mine collapse due to the softness of the material. Some NGOs, volunteers and activists are challenging the absence of legal or political structures requiring big companies to track their supply chains, and there are specific laws in the Netherlands, France or the U.K., where the first Modern Slavery Act was passed in 2015. However, the experts I interviewed called these examples ‘soft laws’, which means that it is unclear if any companies are being held responsible or not.
For example, Merck is Europe’s biggest mica manufacturer, and they have developed some structures to track their supply chains, for example, by owning their own mines in India. Still, research shows that they cannot guarantee that their supply chain is free of child labour or human rights violations. In the two regions I studied, Jharkhand and Bihar, there is no reliable data on how many unofficial or illegal mines exist in these regions, but Merck legally owns two official mines. Officially speaking, that means they control what happens there, but unofficially speaking, they do not directly employ their own workers. I spoke to one investigative journalist who actually went to these regions to check the official statistics, for example, on increasing enrolment of children in schools. He discovered that many children do go to school for lunch, but then leave to work in the mines. So the official numbers, which companies may use to protect their reputation, do not correspond to reality. And Kuncai, the biggest Chinese mica manufacturer, does not even answer journalist questions about this subject.
How did you acquire your mica, and what knowledge could you gain about its origin?
There are many ways to get mica, for example, there are hundreds of Chinese companies selling mica flakes on Alibaba and Alibaba Express; sometimes the material is synthetic, sometimes it’s imported from India or other countries, and it’s sold for a very cheap price, about $500 per ton, plus delivery costs. However, I couldn’t get much information about sources through these platforms.
Eventually, I found another platform called tradekey.com where one can submit a request to order a certain material or component, and you are connected directly to a supplier through a representative. They put me in touch with a man who owns a small company with a certified mine in Pakistan, and we communicated over WhatsApp. I told him directly that I wanted to order raw mica and I have this fixed budget. He must have assumed that I ordered these 30 kilograms as a sample for manufacturing purposes. He can supply up to 400 tons of mica per month. The material itself is extremely cheap, and its value is mainly generated in the process of importing; for the exporting traders in India, the profits on the material are quite low; they mainly charge for delivery and sorting.
However, there is a clear difference between specific regions such as South Madagascar or Jharkhand and Bihar in India, where the mica is mined by hand without official registration, and places where mining is legal and regulated and more industrial. An industrial miner in Northwest India may earn five times the salary of an unofficial artisanal miner in Northeast India. The commercial activity in Koderma, one of the main cities in the mica mining region of Jharkhand, and the export data from the Kolkata harbour show that there is still a lot of mica coming out of the unregulated regions, but it is much harder to know exactly who is doing the labour.