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Aug 17

Like glittery metallic paints on cars? There’s something you should know…

The mica used to give metallic paints their sparkle was mined by Indian children

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You’re a conscientious consumer. You buy eggs from cage-free chickens, your bling is blood diamond-free, and your iPhone…well, you try not to think too much about your iPhone.

But what about your car–specifically, its glittery metallic paint? Have you mulled that over much?

Apparently, you should’ve. Car companies like Audi, BMW, and Volkswagen are investigating reports that the mica used to give metallic paints their sparkle was mined by Indian children as young as ten.

As appalling as that is, the news shouldn’t have come as a surprise to automakers. Cosmetics companies use huge volumes of mica to shine up lipstick, eyeshadow, and blush, and the child labor issue was brought to their attention two years ago. Shouldn’t car manufacturers have seen the potential link?

Perhaps, but maybe they took the Indian government at its word when it promised to eliminate the practice of putting children in mica mines. Unfortunately, enforcement of the Indian government’s new regulations has been spotty at best, and today, it’s estimated that 20,000 child miners can still be found in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand, abutting India’s eastern border with Bangladesh.

Much of the mica those children unearth still makes its way to exporters, who sell it to giant firms like China’s Fujian Kuncai, who then sell the mica to major players in the auto paint industry like Axalta and PPG. At least two automakers–BMW and Volkswagen–have confirmed that their paint suppliers have relationships with Fujian Kuncai and that they’re investigating whether the paints they’ve used include materials derived from child labor.

Complications

As with most things in the real world, solving the problem of children mining for mica isn’t cut-and-dry.

For example, child labor is a common practice in these areas of India. Should it be? Of course not. But it is, and changing ingrained social behaviors is difficult (see also: racism, sexism, and homophobia worldwide).

Also, the families of underage miners depend on the children’s extra income to live. Sure, government regulators can force mines to stop hiring kids, but how are the kids’ families going to compensate for the loss of household income in the short term?

Lastly, mica is used in a whole host of products, including many plastics you can probably find lying around your house. The cosmetics industry and the auto industry are taking the heat right now, but in fact, many, many other manufacturers must get involved before the demand for child-mined mica drops off.

RICHARD READ

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