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Paint Mineral Linked to Child Labor

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

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A British newspaper has uncovered evidence that an ingredient in paints used by several major automakers may in some cases be sourced from mines in India that employ children as young as 10 years old.

The Guardian reported Thursday (July 28) that a number of auto manufacturers, including British General Motors imprint Vauxhall and German makers Volkswagen, BMW and Audi, use auto finishes containing mica that can be traced back to Chinese firm Fujian Kuncai. Fujian Kuncai, the paper says, is a major customer of mines in India that employ children in what the newspaper characterizes as “hazardous” conditions.

Coatings Companies Questioned

The Guardian reports that the finishes in question are provided by PPG and Axalta. Axalta confirmed to the newspaper that it sourced pigments from Fujian Kuncai; PPG declined to comment, noting that the company does not discuss specific suppliers.

Both coatings companies told The Guardian that they strictly disallow the use of child labor or forced labor by their suppliers. The automakers named in the report all told the newspaper they would be investigating the allegations.

A PPG spokesman told PaintSquare on Monday (August 1): "PPG does not tolerate the use of improper labor practices by any supplier. PPG’s Supplier Code of Conduct prohibits the use of child labor, and indicates that suppliers shall adhere to the minimum employment age limit defined by national law or regulation, and shall comply with relevant International Labor Organization (ILO) standards. PPG reserves the right to terminate any agreement with any supplier that cannot demonstrate compliance with its Supplier Code of Conduct."

On Wednesday (August 3), Axalta representatives relayed the following statement to PaintSquare:

"We are aware of concerns about the alleged use of child labour to mine mica used in pearlescent pigments. Axalta deplores such practices and our Code of Business Conduct & Ethics expressly prohibits child labour. Furthermore, the terms and conditions of Axalta contracts with suppliers include a number of human rights provisions including a specific requirement that suppliers obey all laws, codes, rules and regulations including labour practices that prohibit the use of child labour. And Axalta’s Supplier Code of Conduct expressly prohibits suppliers from using child labour in their supply chains. It’s important to note that Axalta has received extensive written confirmation from our pigment suppliers that their supply chains do not engage in the use of child labour. We currently are carefully reviewing The Guardian article's assertions and determining what - if any - additional engagement is required with our suppliers.

"The story that appeared in the Guardian in July recognises a report by the human rights organisation Terre des Hommes that examines the Indian mica-based supply chain from the mines up through coatings suppliers. As we continue to examine and address this issue, we’re taking heed of some of the recommendations in the Terre des Hommes report on child labour in India for all companies along the supply chain to consider. Terre des Hommes encourages ethical companies to remain in supply and effect change from within."

Shimmering Pigments

Mica is a mineral that is used in pearlescent pigments to provide a shimmering effect. Labor practices in Indian mica mines have come under fire in recent years, leading to a firestorm in the makeup industry, which also uses the mineral.

Since 2014, a number of investigative reports by journalists have uncovered numerous instances of mines employing children and people forced into the work by debt. Local lenders and mines themselves lend money at rates of up to 200 percent annual interest, The Guardian reports.

Muscovite and biotite mica
By James St. John – CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

Mica is a mineral that is used in pearlescent pigments to provide a shimmering effect. (Pictured: Muscovite and biotite mica, of U.S. origin.)

Most of the child-labor problem stems from the states of Jharkhand and Bihar, in northeast India. The Sydney Morning Herald, in its investigation of the matter in 2014, noted that rebel forces control much of the nearby jungle and are known to kill police, making enforcement of child-labor laws difficult.

Mica from the child-staffed mines is funneled through exporters who largely work with Chinese companies to get the product to market, the Morning Herald report said.

Mica Dangers

U.S. safety regulators note that mica dust can scar the lungs, and recommend precautions including personal protective equipment and wet drilling for mica mining operations. The Guardian report includes details depicting children of 12 and 13 working in mines where “glittering clouds of tiny mica particles swirl” around them.

Mica is prevalent worldwide, with mines in the U.S., Russia and elsewhere. India, though it produces mica in multiple forms, is a major exporter of sheet mica, which is primarily used in electronics. Paints and cosmetics generally require ground mica in their formulation, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The problem cuts across industries, according to activists. Terre de Hommes, a European child-rights organization, says that “European consumers cannot trust that mica-containing cable, paint and cosmetics products are child-labor free.”

Editor's note: This story was updated Wed., August 3, to include a statement issued by Axalta addressing the Guardian report.

   

Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Automotive coatings; Coating chemistry; Coating Materials; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Ethics; Labor; Latin America; North America; Pigments; Regulations

Comment from Bogdan Dana, (8/2/2016, 1:08 AM)

Good Day, I know it is not easy to check all the raw materials suppliers from Asia but the likes of PPG and Axalta should invest some more in keeping everything and everybody honest! Imagine what other suppliers can get away with! Let us see what type of wooden language they will keep using to defend themselves.


Comment from Catherine Brooks of Eco-Strip, (8/2/2016, 1:02 PM)

What about on the other end of the supplier chain, the humanitarian efforts to provide alternate work for those kids? Their pittance of wages may be the only family income.


Comment from Jesse Melton, (8/3/2016, 8:13 AM)

Large companies like PPG and Axalta, any large company actually, face huge challenges in keeping supply chains in compliance with the HR and environmental regulations imposed on them by Western countries. At the end of the day people on site have to send compliance data back to companies and governments but those people have another set of challenges to deal with. You can hire locals who know the way things really work in a given location. You can teams for surprise inspections or you can station your own staff there. Locals always have to deal with bribery and retribution. Specialist teams sent in are ridiculously easy to mislead. You don't even have to take them to the right site. They have no way to know, especially in the face of locals with vested interests in maintaining the current situation. You get 15 people telling you your information is wrong and it's really difficult to dispute that because nobody else they know has been three or had been shown the same thing previously. As for permanently stationed staff you ask them to choose between the safety of their families and their own lives and staying quiet, staying safe and making some extra money on the side. Once you get off the beaten path things operate very differently than what governments envision when writing laws. I'm not supporting child labor or insanely dangerous conditions, but a journalist, or someone paid by a journalist, sneaking in and seeing something worth writing about is a cake walk, especially when they've got the same locals to deal with in guiding them around. People would be surprised at how many local representatives know exactly where the child labor is occurring, but come back in an hour and what was a tipping floor is now a classroom with very familiar looking students. The same folks can also show you a gorgeous operation in full compliance with absolutely everything but come back later and there are nothing but awfulness to see. It's all a really, really big mess and it goes on everywhere. There's plenty of slave/debtor/child labor going on in every country, no matter how many laws are written.


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