Global appetite for cobalt is soaring, and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are paying the price.
In the South-East corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo around 973 miles from the nation’s capital, Kinshasa, is Haut-Katanga – one of Africa’s most mineral-rich provinces. Situated perfectly on the Central African ‘Copperbelt’, Haut-Katanga boasts an extraordinary abundance of natural resources, and one of the minerals that the province is synonymous with is cobalt — a shiny silvery-grey metal that helps boost the performance of the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power our laptops, smartphones, and electric cars.
Approximately two-thirds of the global supply of cobalt comes from the mineral-rich soil of Haut-Katanga, its landscape peppered with cobalt mines as Congo’s largest mining companies race to extract the lucrative mineral.
The Cobalt Rush
The rapid expansion of the technology industry over the last decade has caused the world’s appetite for cobalt skyrocket. In the last five years alone, the demand for the lustrous mineral has increased threefold, and experts forecast that the global cobalt market size is set to be valued at a whooping $12.9 billion by 2025 if demand continues to soar.
Smartphones, tablets, laptops, electric cars, and re-chargeable electric devices have become ubiquitous in modern life. And with them, so has cobalt.
But whilst cobalt traders delight over their future sales projections, there is a dark cloud hovering above the mineral heartland of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A supply chain riddled with child labour
In 2018, author and human rights activist Siddharth Kara traced the global cobalt pipeline back to the DRC and uncovered “heartending suffering” at the bottom of the global cobalt supply chain. Kara documented 31 mining sites in and around Haut-Katanga province, and found young children enduring gruelling labour both above and below ground as they mined cobalt for export to China and the west.
“The torment I observed in the Congo has shattered my heart… I have seen children suffering, anguishing, and dying for our cobalt,” recounts Kara.
“In mine after mine, I witnessed heartending suffering at the bottom of the global supply chain. Children, as young as six, are caked in filth as they hack, sort, shovel, and scrounge for cobalt, earning between $0.50 and $0.80 per day of gruelling labour. They endure lacerations and broken bones, and they suffer permanent damage to their health by handling cobalt with their bare hands and by breathing toxic mineral dust all day”.
Alongside enduring perilous work, a major report by Amnesty International and African Resource Watch (Afrewatch) found that child miners also face physical abuse and financial exploitation at every corner. Children mining in southern DRC said that they were often beaten by security guards patrolling the mines, underpaid and short-changed by cobalt traders at the market, and would sometimes have their sacks stolen by their adult co-workers.
By the end of a long day of exploitation, the children had barely anything to show for the strenuous labour they endured.
The Poverty Factor
One of the root causes of the prevalent child labour across the cobalt mines of southern DRC is poverty. Despite the riches under their feet, the people of the DRC are among the poorest in the world, with over 70% of the population living in “extreme poverty” on less than $2 a day, according to research by the World Bank.
The persistence of poverty, coupled with socio-economic factors such as high unemployment rates, has resulted in families flocking to mineral-rich areas like Haut-Katanga in hopes of pursuing the best economic option they have – artisanal cobalt mining.
Around 40,000 children are part of the cobalt mining workforce in southern DRC, as estimated by The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Tech Giants & the class action lawsuit
The growing spotlight on child labour in the global cobalt supply chain has catalysed collective action to eradicate human rights abuses in the cobalt industry.
In December 2019, tech giants Apple, Dell, Tesla, and Alphabet found themselves implicated in a class action lawsuit filed by International Rights Advocates (IRA). The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the guardians of 14 Congolese child miners who have died or suffer from life-altering injuries from cobalt mining, alleges that the tech giants are “knowingly participating in, supporting, and providing the essential market for cobalt that has caused the explosion of production by young children.”
IRA also accuses the tech giants of “corporate coverup”, alleging that Defendants have “joined and supported ‘model’ mining programs in DRC to create the false impression that they have acted to prevent the known horrors of cobalt mining in the DRC by children.”
The Guardian reports that this is the first time that any of the tech giants have faced a legal challenge of this kind.
What can be done for Congo in the future?
Widespread investigations into child labour in the cobalt supply chain has also led to the DRC’s government announcement of a new strategy to eliminate child labour in the country’s mining sector by 2025. It is a move that Seema Joshi, Head of Human Rights at Amnesty International, describes as a “significant step” towards eradicating human rights abuses in the cobalt supply chain and securing a future for Congolese children that is free of exploitation.
Increased pressure on tech giants to exercise due diligence with their suppliers has renewed hope that there will be an increase of ethically mined cobalt in the market. Some 380 companies, including electric vehicle manufactures BMW, Volkswagen, and Ford have all already committed to responsible sourcing of cobalt via the Responsible Mineral Initiative. In September, Tesla announced that they have begun working to develop new batteries that use little to no cobalt.
Global initiatives to clean up the tainted cobalt supply chain has made the light at the end of the tunnel visible for the child miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo. All eyes are now on tech companies and cobalt traders to follow through.