Paul started mining at the age of 12 and was one of the children who worked in underground cobalt tunnels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He told Amnesty International that he frequently spent 24 hours down in those dark and fetid tunnels; he would arrive in the morning and not leave until the following morning.
Other children – some as young as 7 – complained of being perpetually sick. “There is lots [sic] of dust, it is very easy to catch colds, and we hurt all over,” 15-year-old Dany lamented. On top of frequent bouts of illnesses, children also faced hunger and starvation, often going a whole day without any food while undertaking gruelling labour.
This is the cost of supplying a world that has become progressively reliant on lithium-ion rechargeable batteries – of which, cobalt is a key ingredient – to power electronics like phones, laptops, tablets, and even vehicles.
More than 60% of cobalt comes from the DRC – Africa’s top copper producer. The majority of cobalt mining in the country is conducted in large-scale industrial mines. There, artisanal miners, called creuseurs, dig a significant proportion of the cobalt by hand.
At the throbbing heart of this exponential global market for cobalt, are approximately 110,000 to 150,000 artisanal miners in the DRC – both adults and children – who work in conditions that are hazardous and life-threatening.
Workers typically lack basic protective or safety equipment such as boots, respirators, gloves or face protection, and do not enjoy legal protections nominally provided by the state. Barefoot, they descend pits – often reaching up to 60-70m of depth – and use basic hand tools to dig for cobalt-containing rocks. As such, they are prone to chronic illnesses, as well as serious and potentially fatal respiratory diseases due to prolonged exposure to dust containing cobalt and other metals.
Pit collapses are common. Miners are also at risk of suffocating in the pits when the generators pumping oxygen into them fail. As recently as 27 June, at least 43 artisanal miners were killed when the tunnel in which they were working collapsed.
Lauren Armistead from the Researcher Business and Human Rights Team at Amnesty International explained, “These issues are deep and structural, and need all the actors in the mining sector in the south of the DRC to come together to address them. There is a lack of viable, productive, authorized mining zones for miners to dig on. There is also a lack of alternative livelihoods. 150,00-200,000 people in the south of the DRC depend on artisanal mining to make a living.”
More harrowing are the children found scavenging for rocks either in the pits or on the surface where they engage in tasks such as sorting, washing and transporting cobalt-containing ore.
The children interviewed by Amnesty International said that they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads, to earn between one and two dollars a day. And like adult miners, they were also consistently exposed to high levels of cobalt with no protective gloves or facemasks.
Several children indicated that security guards employed by mining companies had beaten them. Guards also demanded money from them and the children had no way of independently verifying the weight or the grade of the ore they collected, making them susceptible to financial exploitation.
They are forced to work since their parents often have no formal employment and are unable to afford school fees. Due to insufficient funding for education, most schools in the DRC still charge parents a monthly amount to cover costs such as teacher salaries, uniforms, and learning materials.
“The DRC government needs to remove financial and other barriers to accessing primary education. They need to provide free and compulsory education, and reintegrate these children into the school system, as their education has been disrupted because of their involvement in artisanal mining,” Armistead argued.
Yet, completely abolishing the cobalt trade may cause a different type of strain on the economy since it provides employment to many in the DRC. Furthermore, avoiding high-risk contexts does not guarantee that other supply chains are less risky.
There have been some improvements since Amnesty International’s first research into the cobalt supply chain in 2015. Since then, some companies like Samsung SDI, LG Chem, Apple, Microsoft, Renault, Daimler, and BMW have become more transparent and have all published lists of their cobalt smelters/refiners.
Despite this, Armistead said that no company is currently fulfilling the international standard and carrying due diligence as per OECD Guidance for Responsible Mineral Supply Chains from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas. Companies are also still failing to publish a list of the risks and abuses they have found in their supply chain and mitigation strategies to address these risks.
“The DRC government needs to take action to address all the issues surrounding cobalt mining including creating new authorized artisanal zones in accessible and productive mine sites; supporting mining activities through the creation of miners’ co-operatives; regularizing unauthorized mining areas by taking into account safety and policy considerations; and helping to create alternative employment options,” Armistead added.