Child Exploitation in Mining Cobalt

More than half of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Cobalt is a key element in lithium-ion rechargeable batteries required for mobile consumer products such as cellphones, laptops and other mobile devices.

This shocking report from Sky News shows the exploitation of child labors as young as 4 years old in the cobalt mines in the DRC. It has been estimated by UNICEF in 2014 that as many as 40,000 child laborers work in the mines in southern DRC including cobalt mines.

The issue is complicated because companies manufacturing cellphones, laptops and other mobile devices have their main suppliers of cobalt in China and they do not investigate the supply chain or the methods used for mining. The following graphic shows the route that cobalt and products using cobalt take to reach manufacturers in places such as Europe, USA, Japan and South Korea.

Source: Exposed: Child labour behind smart phone and electric car batteries

A detailed report, Democratic Republic of Congo:”This is what we die for”: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt, was prepared by Amnesty International in 2016. It highlights the issues:

  • There is an ever growing demand for lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.
  • Artisan miners are required to use the most basic tools and work in dangerous underground tunnels that have inadequate ventilation. They are also not provided with protective equipment such as gloves, work clothes or face masks.
  • Child laborers work under the same conditions and are used to salvage cobalt from discarded industrial waste and tunnels. They work up to 12 hours a day in all sorts of weather conditions, may be beaten and earn 1 to 2 dollars a day. The conditions are dangerous, unhealthy and inhumane. These children are forced to work because their parents cannot afford the 10-30 dollars per month that it would cost to send a child to school. Even children who attend school may be forced to work after school, on the weekends and during school holidays.
  • Exposure to dust containing cobalt can result in “hard metal lung disease” and other ailments such as respiratory sensitization, asthma, shortness of breath, and decreased pulmonary function and dermatitis. Physical problems result from carrying heavy sacks containing the minerals.
  • There is a lack of DRC government enforcement of the Mining Code and Regulations and much of the mining takes place in unauthorized mining areas. There is also corruption by government officials demanding money from workers at these unauthorized sites and in return they do not enforce government regulations.
  • No government requires its electronics companies to track and report on its supply chain for cobalt. Under international human rights law, all governments have a responsibility to protect against abuses of human rights and in particular monitor the use of child labor.

This serious situation against human rights, and in particular involving child labor, is a call for action by all governments, companies and stakeholders involved in the supply chain of cobalt in the mobile technologies market.

 

Resources

Inside the Congo mines that exploit children, Sky News, YouTube video, 27 February 2017.

Exposed: Child labour behind smart phone and electric car batteries, Amnesty International Organization, 19 January 2016.

Democratic Republic of Congo:”This is what we die for”: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt, Amnesty International Organization, 2016.

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