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'Zone Rouge': An army of children toils in African mines

How mica mined by kids in Madagascar ends up in products used by millions of Americans.
Two children -- ages 5 and 8 -- pound down pieces of mica.
Two children — ages 5 and 8 — pound down pieces of mica.Christine Romo / NBC News

TARANTA-BAS, Madagascar — A boy climbs out of a pit in the ground and shields his eyes from the sun. His hands and feet are covered in dust, his T-shirt and shorts covered in rips.

The boy has spent the last several hours working inside the pit. Now above ground, he proudly holds up an example of his labor: a silvery sheet of mica, the iridescent mineral shimmering in the afternoon light.

The boy is 10 years old, but he doesn’t go to school. He works for much of the day — and sometimes through the night — crawling through pitch-black tunnels inside the makeshift mine, his fingers picking through the earth, collecting and sorting shards of mica.

The minerals he picks up will soon make their way through an opaque supply chain from Africa to Asia before landing in millions of products — electronics, appliances, even trains — that wind up in America.

“My mother doesn’t make enough money,” says the boy, whose name is Manjoraza. “So I have to help her make money.”

Manjoraza is among thousands of children working in Madagascar’s mica industry — an underground army of little laborers who go largely unseen in a country famous for its lush forests, vanilla crop and lemur population.

Here, where Madagascar’s mica supply chain begins, the boy and his family are trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty, exploitation and child labor that spans generations. Without clean water, access to health care or schooling, children like Manjoraza see their present and their future as revolving around the shards of mica buried in the pits down below.

The magic mineral: Mica is everywhere

Mica is the name applied to a group of minerals that form in layers at once flexible and strong.

A longtime staple of the cosmetics industry, mica is known for adding sparkle to makeup products and paints. But it’s also prized in the electronics and automotive worlds due to its ability to transmit electric force without overheating, even under extreme temperatures.

In Madagascar, an island nation of 25.5 million people located off the southeast coast of Africa, it’s mined by hand in a cluster of sites in the country’s rugged south. In 2016, Madagascar overtook India as the biggest global exporter of sheet mica, the grade used extensively in the electronics and automotive industries, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database.

Who’s helping? Terre des Hommes is creating safe child care at the mine sites. UNICEF is providing ways for kids to learn in Madagascar, including at mica processing centers.

Mica mining in India has generated controversy in recent years for its use of child labor and unsafe conditions. But Madagascar’s mica sector has garnered little scrutiny even as it has developed into a critical source for international manufacturers.

NBC News traveled more than 400 miles through Madagascar’s remote south with the Dutch child protection group Terre des Hommes and witnessed scores of children working in unregulated and poorly-ventilated mica pits, as well as processing centers, alongside other family members.

A review of hundreds of shipping records revealed how the vast majority of mica mined in Madagascar flows to China and ends up in component parts in American products, such as hair dryers, audio speakers and batteries.

Common uses for naturally occurring phlogopite mica

Of the 37 types of natural mica, phlogopite is one of two grades that has real commercial value.

Robin Muccari / Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and NBC News

And interviews with executives in Madagascar’s mica industry showed that the prevalence of child labor is well known but largely dismissed as a byproduct of extreme poverty.

Taken together, a picture emerges of children as young as 4 years old performing long hours of labor-intensive work in often dangerous conditions to collect a mineral whose price will be inflated nearly 500 times by the time it leaves Madagascar’s shores.

“Working in mines is considered one of the worst forms of child labor,” Claire van Bekkum, senior project manager at Terre des Hommes, said. “They’re in a hazardous situation health-wise and safety-wise.”

Terre des Hommes released a first-of-its-kind report on Madagascar’s mining sector Monday, documenting the rampant child labor and cycle of poverty endemic in the industry.

The group found that at least 10,000 children work in the mica sector. Many of them eat only at night and suffer from grown-up afflictions: back pain due to the long hours hunched over, as well as headaches because of the heat and the lack of water or oxygen inside the mines.

“The children who we have interviewed justify the work because they have nothing to eat, because they are poor, or because their parents do not have enough money to put them in school,” the report says. “Conditioned by routine, a minority of the children even think their living and working conditions are normal.”

Over a period of nine days on the ground, NBC News tracked the flow of mica mined in Madagascar in an effort to shine a light on who is doing the work and whom it most benefits.

The journey began in a lawless part of the country — a place known as “zone rouge,” or red zone.

Drought, poverty and desperation in Andranondambo

The drive to Andranondambo from the southern port city of Fort Dauphin takes more than nine hours on a dirt patch riddled with rocks and potholes.

The area is plagued by political instability, drought, rampant poverty and rising levels of banditry. Roughly 4,000 people have been killed in southern Madagascar over the past five years in violence largely fueled by gangs of thieves and a brutal government crackdown on them, according to Amnesty International.

It’s the poorest region in what is one of the poorest countries in the world, a 19th century slave trading center where 75% of the population now lives on less than $1.90 a day. Madagascar’s south also ranks at the bottom of the quality of life indicators such as access to health care and education.

It is here where the vast majority of Madagascar mica mining takes place. And it is here where a mother of six named Solange, 30, makes her living.

Solange, 30, descends into a hole in the ground with her 4-year-old daughter Mirela strapped to her back.
Solange, 30, descends into a hole in the ground with her 4-year-old daughter Mirela strapped to her back.Christine Romo / NBC News

She spends her days in narrow pits collecting pieces of mica — and her nights sleeping outside with her children to protect the haul. “If I left here overnight, people would steal the mica,” Solange said.

The area is plagued by insecurity. Its lone school was ransacked by the “malaso,” bands of well-armed cattle thieves whose presence deters local travelers and most aid groups from passing through the region.

Solange said she typically enters the mica pits at about 7 a.m. and works until at least 7 p.m. The environment down below is stifling: temperatures that can exceed 95 degrees, low oxygen levels that can hinder breathing.

She often descends into the pit with her 4-year-old daughter Mirela strapped to her back but wearing no goggles or safety equipment.

“We don’t have any money,” Solange said. “We don’t have any choice.”

After working for the past two and a half months, Solange’s family has compiled three grades of mica: scrap, sheet and block. Block mica, the highest quality of the mineral, earns the equivalent of about 7 cents a pound.

One afternoon, a motorbike roars up the road and stops near the piles of mica compiled by Solange and other villagers. A man in a black jacket and a white hat steps off the vehicle. He’s well known here.

The man introduces himself as Joseph and says he’s a mica buyer from Fort Dauphin. He works for Tri-H, Madagascar’s leading exporter of mica.

Joseph says he buys the mineral for roughly 2 cents a pound and sells it to foreign importers and manufacturers for a little more than 4 cents a pound, more than doubling its value. In China, the mica is processed into components that will be distributed to companies worldwide, including in the United States.

Joseph then walks over to the piles of mica Solange and her family spent the past two and a half months gathering in the pits and hauling above ground. He provides an estimate of their value: the equivalent of $240. Joseph will keep about half that amount to cover the loan he provided Solange, a loan that allowed her and her eight family members to eat while they toiled in the pits for several weeks.

For all of that work, their pay breaks down to less than 40 cents a day per person.

Joseph acknowledges that workers like Solange are paid a pittance. But he says there’s nothing he can do about it.

“The Chinese exporters control the market,” he says.

Of the nearly 46,000 tons of mica Madagascar exported in 2018, more than 91 percent was shipped to China, according to the International Trade Centre.

Madagascar’s mica supply increasingly feeds China’s demand

Export values of mica product from Madagascar, 2014 to 2018.

Jiachuan Wu / International Trade Center

Joseph insists there’s “no scope for negotiation” because the Chinese tell him that mica is still valued at a low price once it arrives there. And he concedes it’s “very clear” the Chinese are taking advantage of the Malagasy people who perform the mica mining in hazardous conditions.

“We’re suffering,” Solange says. “We’re working extremely hard for a very, very small amount of money.”

A family affair

Under a tin roof set atop a thin wooden frame, three children sit in silence as they pound mica with tools that resemble a socket wrench. It’s after 1 p.m. at an open-air mica processing center in Amboasary-Sud, a dusty town surrounded by large tracts of farmland.

One of the children, a 3-year-old girl in an orange and brown striped shirt, looks up at a visitor and blinks rapidly as her eyes roll into the back of her head. The girl, her mother says as she breastfeeds another child nearby, was born mute and with limited vision like her two sisters.

A mother breastfeeds one of her children in an open-air mica processing center in Amboasary-Sud.
A mother breastfeeds one of her children in an open-air mica processing center in Amboasary-Sud.Lisa Cavazuti / NBC News
A three-year-old girl, works alongside her mother, breaking down blocks of mica.
A three-year-old girl, born mute and with limited vision like her two sisters, breaks down blocks of mica.Christine Romo / NBC News

NBC News showed up at the site unannounced. Scattered across a plot of dirt roughly the size of two football fields were piles of mica and scores of children working alongside adults to break down the blocks of minerals into the thinnest possible pieces.

The site acts as a collection point for area mines that don’t produce enough mica to cover the cost of trucking it to the port. The workers, mostly women and their children, spend their days breaking down and cleaning fragments of mica that will ultimately end up in products pieced together in Asia.

The work here is often a family affair. Seated on a beige tarp in the shade of an abandoned truck, two children — ages 8 and 5 — pounded down pieces of mica as their mother picked through her own pile of minerals.

The woman said they typically arrive for work at 5 a.m. and remain there until 6 p.m, earning the equivalent of $3 a week to support herself and her four children.

She said she’d prefer to send her children to school, but she has no husband and can’t make enough on her own to feed her family. As it is, she said, they eat just one meal a day: a cup of rice she splits with her four kids.

Two children — ages 5 and 8 — pound down pieces of mica.
Two children — ages 5 and 8 — pound down pieces of mica.Christine Romo / NBC News

And they’re not among the worst off.

Nearby, a 26-year-old woman was striking pieces of mica as her 2-year-old clung to her chest. Unlike most of the others here, they weren’t sitting under a tin roof or a piece of cloth strapped to wooden posts. The woman and her child were sitting in the open, fully exposed to the sun, because she couldn’t afford the small section of fabric to provide shade.

“Give us money to buy food,” the woman said, unprompted.

From this location, the mica is trucked to facilities closer to the coast operated by export companies. Madagascar has five major exporters, and Tri-H, where Joseph sends Solange’s mica, is its largest.

When NBC News showed up at the Tri-H headquarters, a two-story all-white building surrounded by walls, the company’s operations manager agreed to an interview.

The Tri-H manager, Haja Ranahary said he was aware that children work at the mines. “It’s not our problem. It’s not our fault,” he said, speaking through a translator. “It’s the fault of the parents of the children.”

Ranahary insisted that he hands out masks, glasses and gloves on his visits to mining sites. He said he also gives workers food, including sacks of rice. In contrast to what the local mica workers told NBC News, Ranahary insisted that the food and the equipment he supplies are “gifts” and are not deducted from the payment workers receive.

He described mica mining as a “poor man’s business,” but he said the people living in the region would have nothing without it. “Thanks to the Lord, Fort Dauphin is the main place, a huge, important place for mica,” Ranahary said. “Because if it wasn't for the mica, all of the people out there would become malasu” – the slang term for bandits.

“They would be stealing cars,” he added.

Ranahary blamed the Chinese importers for the mica miners’ low pay.

“The Chinese company is taking advantage of the people who are doing the hard, backbreaking and perhaps very dangerous work,” he said.

Ranahary said his company has sought to solicit orders from companies based in countries other than China. But in over three years of trying, he said, Tri-H hasn’t received a single response.

Companies say they had no idea

The final stop for the region’s mica is Port Ehoala, located about six miles from Fort Dauphin.

Tri-H relies on two shipping companies based here, including CMA-CGM, the largest transporter in Africa. In an interview, Anselme Sambotiana, the CMA-CGM branch manager, confirmed that in July alone the company shipped about 580 tons of mica out of the country, most of it to China.

Sambotiana said he had never traveled to the mica mines and he didn’t give a clear answer when asked if he was aware that children are working there. After being shown photos of child laborers, he became visibly uncomfortable and asked if he could have copies of the images to show his management team.

“That makes us emotional to know that there are children working in those conditions,” he said.

The government of Madagascar, where labor laws prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from working in mines, did not return requests for comment.

The mica stored in CMA containers travels by ship across the Indian Ocean to Shanghai and then by truck to sites controlled by one of two large Chinese import companies, Pamica and Pingjiang VPI Mica Insulating Materials, according to shipping records reviewed by NBC News.

These firms turn the mineral shards into component parts that end up in products sold by such companies as Panasonic, Electrolock and CRRC, a Chinese government-owned rail equipment manufacturer that has signed deals to produce trains for Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston.

In an interview at a CCRC facility in Springfield, Massachusetts, company president Jai Bo said he had no idea mica used in their trains were mined by children. “We have to do some investigation with our suppliers,” Bo said.

Joe Williams, the president of Electrolock, an Ohio-based company that provides battery insulation to the military, said he was concerned to hear of anyone working in mica mines and processing centers under intense heat and dangerous conditions.

“It is especially disturbing to hear of families with children working under these conditions,” Williams said, adding the company sources about 4% of its products from China. He said Electrolock was reaching out to its supplier to pursue the issue.

Panasonic said its supply chain guidelines “expressly prohibits the use of child labor and require suppliers to treat all workers with dignity and respect. Breaches of our supply policy are not tolerated.”

“Panasonic supports human rights, safe working environments and environmental consciousness,” the company added.

Some mica mined in Madagascar by small children flows into a stream of mica mined from India, making it nearly impossible to pinpoint in which company’s products it ends up. Several major American companies depend on sheet mica, which Madagascar exports in higher amounts than any other country, raising questions about the materials used by a range of companies including: Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, Boeing, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Isovolta, a company that makes interior plane parts.

Three of the companies — United Airlines, Isovolta and Alaska Airlines — didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The others insisted they have protocols in place to help ensure that no child labor is involved in acquiring the natural materials that end up in their products.

Ford said it regularly communicates with its suppliers to “monitor the responsible sourcing of mica.”

“Ford aims to ensure that everything we make – or others make for us – is produced consistent with our own commitment to protecting human rights and in adherence with local law,” Ford said.

Fiat-Chrysler said it “engages in collaborative action with global stakeholders across industries and along the value chain to promote and develop our raw material supply chain.”

Virgin Atlantic said it asks its suppliers to comply with standards that include “providing safe and fair working conditions for employees” and “not using child labor defined as anyone under 15 years of age.”

Boeing acknowledged that suppliers may “incorporate minerals into components at an early stage of their manufacturing process,” but said it expects the suppliers to comply with its policies on basic working conditions and human rights.

In Washington, a pair of senators, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., vowed to take action after being shown the footage of children working in Madagascar’s mica mines.

“It has to be stopped,” Brown said. “I have grandchildren that are that age. I have seven grandchildren, six of them are under 7 years old. It’s just imaginable to think of my grandchildren doing this.”

Thousands of children work in Madagascar's mica industry.
Thousands of children work in Madagascar's mica industry.
Thousands of children work in Madagascar's mica industry.Christine Romo / NBC News

Brown and Wyden sponsored legislation in 2015 to close a loophole that had allowed the U.S. to import products made by forced labor, including child labor, if the goods could not be obtained elsewhere.

In an interview, Brown and Wyden said they plan to address the issue in upcoming hearings with Customs and Border Protection officials and they might even use the NBC News footage of Malagasy children working in mica mines to illustrate the need to crack down on products built off their labor.

“If we can shine the hot light of visibility and accountability, which your stories will help us to do, that can help us clean up the supply chain,” Wyden said.

Thangam Ponpandi, a Terre des Hommes expert on mica mining who took part in the trip to Madagascar, argues against actions like mass boycotts of the companies that use mica mined by Malagasy children.

“If the consumers stop buying, they don't have anything to eat,” he said. “They are going to literally die. So what we want is the companies take responsibility in finding the traces from where the materials are sourced, and they are sourced in a responsible manner.”

Ponpandi said the work his group has done in India provides a road map for improving conditions in Madagascar.

Like Madagascar, India has struggled for years with surging numbers of children working in its mines. But starting about three years ago, Terre des Hommes poured resources into the northern region of India known as the mica belt.

The organization helped create more than two dozen child care centers, trained local teachers, bolstered school lunches and launched programs focused on counseling and mentoring children whose lives previously revolved around working in the mica mines.

The contributions have yielded significant results. The region was home to an estimated 22,000 child laborers in the mica sector in 2016. But the number was cut in half by 2018, according to figures from the Indian government.

Ponpandi said the situation in Madagascar closely resembles what was playing out in India before the nonprofit stepped in.

“This can be easily replicated there,” he said during a tour of the facilities in India over the summer. “The only problem is, we may not find this kind of infrastructure.”

‘The dust comes inside of us’

In the southern Madagascar region of Taranta-Bas, where Manjoraza lives and works, the closest hospital is unreachable by foot and the fees for the lone school are beyond what most people can afford.

NBC News first encountered the boy while he was crawling through a tunnel inside a mica mine with six of his cousins, ages 8 to 15. Their arms and legs were covered in dust. The air, thick with sediment, was hard to breathe.

Manjoraza, right, loads piles of sand and rocks into a yellow bucket with holes cut out of the bottom -- a makeshift sieve.
Manjoraza, right, loads piles of sand and rocks into a yellow bucket with holes cut out of the bottom — a makeshift sieve.Christine Romo / NBC News

Manjoraza and the other children walked deeper into the darkened mine until they reached his aunt who was crouched down on the ground, a head lamp strapped to her head, sifting through mounds of earth.

“We cough a lot,” the aunt said. “The dust comes inside of us.”

Manjoraza returned to his work, loading piles of sand and rocks into a yellow bucket with holes cut out of the bottom — a makeshift sieve. He shifted it side to side until only hard objects remained. He then dumped the rocks and minerals into a pile in front of his aunt who picked through them to identify the pieces of mica worth collecting.

Manjoraza said he’s worked in the mine for two years, starting when he was 8. He said he now has has pain in his lower back, he coughs a lot, and he sometimes has vision problems. But when asked if he ever gets scared while working in the claustrophobic tunnels deep underground, he answered with no hesitation.

“We are many here,” the boy said.