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ReMerckable Use of Child Labor In India

Mother Davis puts down her tube of lip gloss as she considers,

If you’re not sure what to do with this hot, late summer day, let me make a suggestion: Head on over to Anti-Slavery, a site representing the work of an organization in the United Kingdom that works to confront current-day slavery and other forms of exploitation of workers. No, it doesn’t have the sweet, carbonated, summer fun feeling of a warm Coca-Cola on a Tilt-A-Whirl, but we all need some vegetables to go after our cotton candy.

What you’re going to find over at Anti-Slavery is information that just might end up changing the way you look at the world of cheap stuff for sale whenever you visit the store. How do they make that stuff so inexpensively? In the cases of many products, the answer is that low, low prices come to you through the exploitation of people who don’t have the power to fight back.

Among those people who can’t fight back: Six year old children in Jharkhand, a state in India. Children there are being paid extremely low wages to work in mica mines. The mica they pull out of the ground is then bought by German pharmaceuticals corporation Merck KGaA (not to be confused with the American company Merck, from which it is separate). Merck KGaA then makes products containing the mica, which are used in turn in cosmetics. Women get to feel pretty at low expense, thanks to children who start their careers as miners at age six.

Investigators found that Merck KGaA knew about allegations of child miners, but it said that it could not investigate the allegations, because the conditions in Jharkhand are too dangerous for it to send employees there… well, except for the child miners. Besides, Merck KGaA spokesmen said, there was a clear contractual obligation that forbade its suppliers in India from using child labor.

The trick is that Merck KGaA requested mica at a price that could not be profitably supplied by a company using adult workers under legal conditions. The contractual obligations through which Merck KGaA obtained its mica weren’t expected to be followed. The arrangement consisted of a wink and a nod, with both sides knowing what was really going on, but pretending everything was on the up and up.

The problem isn’t unique to Merck KGaA. Many companies, including corporations based in the USA, have arrangements for outsourced labor using contracts that appear to forbid abusive forms of labor, but which are never meaningfully verified. The pressure for low costs ensures that corners will be cut, and where people don’t have the power to resist exploitation, human labor is one of the easiest corners to cut.

Think about those child miners in India the next time you reach for something cheap made overseas, rather than a more expensive alternative made here in the USA, where labor standards, while not perfect, provide us good assurance that slavery and child labor is not involved in the creation of domestically-produced item. Think first about whether you really need that item, and then consider whether you’re willing to support the use of children in hard labor just in order to save a dollar or two.

Leaving the lip gloss in the medicine cabinet,
Mother Davis

4 comments to ReMerckable Use of Child Labor In India

  • Tom

    Exploitation of children, women, the poor, animals, and the earth is what has lead to our current predicament. When it’s all about the “bottom line” people throw morality and ethics out the window, and for corporations it’s “gospel”.

    Humanity will reap its reward soon enough.

  • ReMarker

    Big business will do what it is allowed to do by governments.

    America had to pass child labor laws to stop businesses from abusing children.

    With a weak American government “we the people” are screwed, big time. With the GOP running our government, “we the people” are screwed, as has been proven.

    I have always been amazed products made on the other side of the earth can be shipped here and sell for less than a similar produce that is made here. Someone is getting screwed and it’s not big business being screwed by unions. It’s the laborers and the environment of the foriegn countries in which these low priced products originate.

    Wikipedia’s entry of “Child labor laws of the U.S.”.

    In 1852, Massachusetts required children to attend school. In 1853, Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society, which worked hard to take in children living on the street. The following year, the children were placed on a train headed for the West, where they were adopted, and often given work. By the late 1800s, the orphan train had stopped running altogether, but its principles lived on.

    The National Child Labor Committee, an organization dedicated to the abolition of all child labor, was formed in 1904. It managed to pass one law, which was struck down by the Supreme Court two years later for violating a child’s right to contract his work. In 1924, Congress attempted to pass a constitutional amendment that would authorize a national child labor law. This measure was blocked, and the bill was eventually dropped. It took the Great Depression to end child labor nationwide; adults had become so desperate for jobs that they would work for the same wage as children. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which, among other things, placed limits on many forms of child labor.

  • Anonymous

    While there is no doubting the issue of cheap labor, the real reason Indian mica has been used for decades is because it is the best type and quality of mica to make the type of pigment products mentioned in the article. Labor is cheap in other developing countries where mica is found but it is not the right type or quality. I believe two other European companies, BASF and Eckart (Altana) also buy Indian Mica for production of similar pigments. Has anyone found out what their position is?

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