By Nita Bhalla and Rina Chandran
DELHI/MUMBAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Major global companies buying the mineral mica from India vowed on Thursday to beef up inspections of their suppliers for child labor after a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation revealed children were dying in illegal mines.
A three-month investigation in the mica-producing states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh found at least seven children have been killed since June mining for mica, the valued mineral that puts a sparkle in make-up and car paint.
These deaths, feared to be just the tip of the iceberg, have gone unreported as victims' impoverished families and mine operators do not want to end the illegal mining in abandoned mines and protected forests - often their only source of income.
While officials in Jharkhand and Rajasthan vowed to investigate child deaths following the expose, major companies buying from India said they would examine suppliers - and could stop buying from India without more efforts to end child labor.
"We have immediately started investigations with our direct suppliers," said a spokesman from German car manufacturer Volkswagen, adding that a meeting with suppliers was now scheduled for later this month.
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"Based on the outcome of the results of our investigations we will take corresponding actions based on our internal processes."
BMW said it did not tolerate child labor.
"If the allegations are substantiated, we will do everything to ensure that the supplier involved is no longer part of our supply chain in the future," a company spokesman said.
Other big car makers in India - Maruti Suzuki, Hyundai, Honda, Audi, Mercedes Benz, Renault, Mahindra and Tata Motors - did not respond to requests for comments.
BOYCOTTS AND ALTERNATIVES
Indian law forbids children below the age of 18 working in mines and other hazardous industries but many families living in extreme poverty rely on children to boost household income.
India is one of the world's largest producers of mica, a silver-coloured, crystalline mineral, that has gained prominence in recent years as an environmentally-friendly material, used in the car and building sectors, electronics and "natural" make-up.
This surge in demand has revived a flagging industry in India which closed most of its 700 mines employing over 20,000 workers in the 1980s following stricter laws to limit deforestation and the discovery of substitutes for natural mica.
In 2013/14 India produced 19,000 tonnes of mica, according to the Bureau of Mines, but exported 128,000 tonnes, with the biggest buyers China, Japan, and the United States.
It is estimated up to 70 percent of India's mica is produced in illegal mines falling into disrepair. Activists have called for more funding to provide schooling and alternative livelihoods in mica areas which are some of the poorest regions.
Rajesh Malhotra, spokesman for the Ministry of Power, Coal and Renewable Energy, said the government has dedicated funds for the welfare of local people in mining areas which will generate $1 billion annually to support various programs.
He listed water, health, education, training, child welfare and sustainable livelihoods as priorities.
Some companies are supporting these community initiatives.
Major buyer, Chinese pigment manufacturer Fujian Kuncai Material Technology Co Ltd, said changes were "urgently needed" and called on all parties involved in the supply chain to act.
Mike Tijdink, general manager of Kuncai Europe, said the manufacturer was setting up its own company in India this month to source directly from mines, working with NGO Terre des Hommes to help communities, and had started making synthetic mica.
"If we are not able to create a child labor free and legal mica industry in India, the industry could consider the switch toward an undisputed product like synthetic mica," he said.
German drugmaker Merck KGaA, which cut some suppliers after it discovered children collecting mica at some mines in 2008, reiterated its condemnation of child labor.
While some companies invest in communities, others say they cannot guarantee supplies are child labor free so have stopped using mica, 10 percent of which goes into cosmetics.
British cosmetics company Lush, which prides itself on its handmade products and ethical trading, switched from natural to synthetic mica in 2014 due to concerns about child labor and described revelations of child deaths in mines as "atrocious".
"No industry should result in the loss of life, let alone that of children," Lush's head of ethical buying, Simon Constantine, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We continue to choose a boycott of natural mica until greater transparency and assurances can be given on ethical supply ... We only hope that other companies see this reporting and are as shocked into action as we have been."
A spokeswoman from L'Oreal said the company was only buying from a "limited number of trusted suppliers who have committed to sourcing only from legal gated mines where working conditions are closely monitored and human rights are respected".
Estee Lauder did not respond to requests for comment.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)