Cobalt: Fuelling the Exploitation of Children
Cobalt is omnipresent in all our lithium-based rechargeable batteries. The end product is present in our pockets, our desk, our vehicles, and countless other ordinary devices used regularly. An essential element like this is mined interminably by artisanal miners in Congo, and this includes the labour of 40,000 children.
More than half the world’s supply of cobalt comes from Congo. DRC despite being a resource-rich country, is also the second poorest country in the world. In furtherance to this, the article explores how these children and artisanal miners searching for this rare-earth material, have been powering our technological revolution despite being on the receiving end of exploitation and oppression.
In light of the global Black Lives Matter protest, the King of Belgium addressed a very uncomfortable subject of the country’s brutish colonial past — a legacy that forever remains shamefully etched in the minds of people, and avoided at its best. An indirect descendant of King Leopold II, who ruled over Congo as his fiefdom for decades killing, maiming, disfiguring millions of people under the imperialistic farce of ‘civilising’ the beasts, King Philippe expressed ‘profound regret’ for the ‘violence’ in Congo.
But what are we to take from this mere acknowledgement? Does it mean atonement, or reparations or a simple act of self-redemption? The question we need to ask is are we on the road to remedy the past and shape a new world of hope, or do we still stick to our primitive social stratifications thereby excluding the subdued?
The ‘slaved’ labour
A woman named Tembu along with her 8-year-old son, for the past several years has been toiling away in knee-high water for almost 12 hours a day to grind 22 pounds of cobalt ore down to gravel-like consistency, worth not more than $6. Another 14-year-old boy spends almost 24 hours in tunnels, sorting through rocks for cobalt ore or otherwise carrying loads from 20 to 40 kg for $1–2 per day.
Children work 10–12 hours per day washing cobalt ore extracted from the mine with wage less than $2 per day.
These ghastly incidences very similar to the slavery that existed in colonised Congo a century ago looting ivory and rubber, also take place today in the very same conditions and manner, exploited once again by the same imperialists although for different allures, and this time in a more covert way.
This cobalt is present in every lithium rechargeable battery on the planet from our smartphones to our electric cars. When we send an email, scroll through social media, charge our phones, fly in an aeroplane, almost every other ordinary gadget will have cobalt as a production component. It is also most likely that it has been sourced from the slaved labour of a 10-year-old, as more than 60% of the world’s cobalt is mined in this cobber belt of DRC. According to Amnesty International, more than 20% of this is mined by hand by locals called ‘creusers’ (French for diggers). To make matters worse, miners, including children work in substandard conditions without any safety equipment or exploratory drills. They are exposed to cobalt dust at levels many times higher than what is considered safe. A report estimated that around 80 miners die every year underground, and the bodies of children and others are left buried under the debris.
It’s impossible to determine how many children are engaged in Congo’s mining industry. A stand-alone child labour survey hasn’t yet been conducted in DRC by the government, but UNICEF in 2012 estimated that 40,000 do so in the country’s south. When a study was conducted by the CEGA to ascertain the underlying reasons for such child labour, they discovered that it wasn’t that parents are unaware about the necessity of an education, it is rather their need for additional income from their child’s labour that outweighs such necessity.
The Vicious Supply Network
These workers enter the global supply chain of multinational enterprises, most of them are Chinese companies, supplying as the world’s largest battery makers. This chain usually begins at a marketplace, wherein small shops together known as ‘comptoirs’ collect the material, process it, and then sell it to companies, mostly Chinese who own such comptoirs or have influence over them. Further, these cathode manufacturers sell it to battery manufacturers who source it from different companies then it reaches the product makers such as Amazon, Apple, Samsung, LG. In addition to this, the use of subcontractors in different countries only makes matters worse, because then there is no way to determine the actual source of cobalt. This entire complex supply chain was unearthed by the investigators of The Post.
Soaring Demand and Sinking Liability
Secondly, the demand for cobalt has been skyrocketing and is expected to double by 2025 according to the forecasting by Avicenne Energy. Moreover, Bloomberg New Energy Finance projected that 33% of all vehicles will be electric by 2030, which means automakers will need to increase their supply dramatically. But herein lies a problem. How do manufacturers ensure the cobalt they’re using is not blemished with the blood and sweat of slavery? When Amnesty International published its report in 2016, it revealed that seven of the world’ leading electric car manufacturers, failed to carry out due diligence on their supply chain in line with international standards as proposed by UN and OECD. The OECD Due Diligence Guidance is used as a standard to mitigate raw material supply chain risks and demands more transparency. These guidelines have been adopted by a lot of US Companies, however, the most prevalent mistake is the arms-length approach companies maintain with their suppliers, which inevitably risks responsible sourcing of materials.
Circumvention and Prevention.
So how do we deal with this complex situation?
Essentially there are 2 strategies. One is to forego the extraction of cobalt from Congo and use other industrialised countries such as Canada, Australia, and Russia to mine the raw material instead. However, this is next to impossible because these countries have a smaller share of the world market, and imposing a de facto ban like this will be a severe blow to the country’s economy and people’s livelihood. After all, more than 100,000 people in Congo are dependent on cobalt mining for their daily source of income, and we cannot leave them in such a devastating situation.
The second more holistic approach that can be taken is a two-fold strategy: the first step is to ensure responsible mining along with a transparent supply chain; the second step is to set up a legal as well as social apparatus to deal with systematic child labour persisting there.
Now considering the first step to oversee a responsible mining system especially on the company’s end would be to ensure a clear and rigorous supply chain monitoring. In this regard, one solution proposed could be to adopt blockchain technology as has already been implemented in Uganda and Zambia to trace agricultural products offering farmers a secure platform to record their transactions and get a fair market price. Moreover, another instance is how Volkswagen one of the 7 carmakers listed in the 2016 Amnesty International Report, is working with Minespider, on a pilot project to track the lead used in car batteries. Along these lines, such blockchain technology could assist in mitigating the risks in mineral supply chains and provide visibility to companies to further track down the miners to their refiners and smelters.
Furthermore, concerning the second step about the legal and social steps the government must undertake to ameliorate this oppressive situation, in the long run, should be studied methodically. A recent very elaborate report concluded by the Bureau of International Labour Affairs, prima facie underscores significant policies espoused by the Government itself and the International community. In furtherance of the Amnesty report in 2016, the Congolese government for the first time in 2017 acknowledged child labour in the mines and committed to eliminate child labour in the mining sector by 2025. However, doubts have been raised about the government’s strategy and its remorseful attempts towards implementation. Having ratified all international conventions concerning child labour, the government passed a new Mining Code in 2018 which criminalises child labour in mining or selling ore mined with child labour. It also establishes institutional mechanisms for the enforcement of the laws, however, the report states that the absence of an adequate number of worksite inspectors and lack of coordination amongst agencies has obstructed the enforcement of the law.
Additionally, UNICEF in collaboration with the Government has also launched the National Plan to Combat the Worst Forms of Child Labour, nonetheless, the programme too was not implemented in 2018 due to lack of funding.
Another ethical obligation Amnesty professed is that when a company has knowingly benefited or contributed to child labour, it must work with the government to remove such children from this practice and support their reintegration into school, healthcare and psychological needs.
A Proven Method
In addition to all these proposals, another advanced exposition could be emulating the methods that are already available, due to similar problems with other raw materials. The purchase of 4 minerals- tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold- is regulated by the European Council Mineral Ordinance, passed in 2017, will come into force from 2021. This ordinance essentially lays down guidelines and standards to monitor the supply chain of these 4 minerals- which sometimes finance armed conflict or are mined using forced labour. It also requires the companies to follow the OECD Due Diligence Guidelines in toto. This could go a long way in strengthening control over these murky cobalt supply chains as well.
The ‘Cruesers’ Embark
To make sure this is not just a fig leaf, we need concerted action from the policymakers not only for the companies but the miners as well; and as far as the children are concerned there has emerged some hope for recrimination recently. In late 2019, a lawsuit was filed in Washington DC by 13 Congolese families (claimants) against some of the world’s largest tech companies including Apple, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla, alleging that their children were injured and some even killed while mining cobalt for these multinationals. The families are not only seeking compensation and damages for their sufferings but also an order for the tech companies to create a fund to ensure complete medical care to all those children injured and to clean up the harmful environmental impact on DRC.
In conclusion, this modern-day slavery must become a global outcry and such exploitation of children must be considered, under any pretext whatsoever, a crime against humanity. It calls for a pressing need for companies to better understand the international rules and norms and give full effect to human rights. Our unrelenting commercialism is tainted by the indigence of thousands of children working in cobalt mines. The unquestionable supremacy of globalisation and neo-liberalism of the 21st century will do no good if such public and private enterprises show absolute disregard to the progressive values of modern society. Denouncing slavery and vandalising the upholders of slavery will be rendered hollow if we remain complicit to such unspeakable suppression of children just to quench our consumerism.
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From the author-
My name is Avisha Pawar, studying at ILS Law College, Pune. Studying law for the last 4 years has piqued my interest particularly in the field of International law, Constitutional law, and matters of socio-economic importance. I believe matters concerning marginalized communities especially on a global scale have been little known all over. In current times when the global ideological equilibrium seems to undergo a change, it’s imperative that these matters come to light. You can follow me on Instagram.