Mica – the most important mineral you've never heard of – can be found in everything from nail varnish to eyeshadow. It’s the stuff that gives your car's paint job a glimmering finish and there’s a strong chance it's found in the electronic device you're reading this story on.
But behind the glamour and flashy electronics, there's an ugly secret: the murky supply chain of mica is riddled with child labor, exploitation, and death.
Mica is a naturally occurring mineral that produces a glittery effect through its crystalline structure. Sometimes labeled as “potassium aluminum silicate” or “CI 77019” on products, the mineral’s pearlescent properties are used to add a sparkle to cosmetics, paints, inks, and all manner of other products. It was even used in traditional woodblock printing in Japan to give it a little bit of a twinkle. Along with its role in cosmetics and pigments, mica’s thermal and electrical insulating properties also make it a valuable material for electronic gadgetry.
Understandably, this versatile glitter is hot property and demand has never been higher. However, extracting mica from the earth is arduous work and processing the raw material requires extensive manual labor. On top of that, many of the planet’s biggest natural deposits also just so happen to lie in some of the world’s poorest areas, altogether creating the perfect recipe for a corrupted situation.
India is one of the largest producers of mica, especially in the impoverished eastern states of Jharkhand and Bihar, where an estimated 25 percent of the world’s supply is churned out by over 20,000 children, according to figures from a 2016 report by Dutch non-profit SOMO, called “Beauty and a Beast”.
Most mica mines are illegal in this part of the world, namely due to environmental laws, but the government often turns a blind eye. The illicit nature of the trade also leave the mines in the hands of the “mica mafia", a chain of organized crime, gangs, corrupt businessmen, and other shady characters who aren’t put off by the industry’s grim corners.