Cobalt is a rare element, nicknamed ‘blue gold’ because of its high value and extensive uses. Major electronics and vehicle manufacturers use it in the manufacturing of lithium-ion battery which powers laptops, mobile phones, electric cars and tablets.
It is also used to fabricate hot parts of jet engines, gas turbines, and magnetic steel. But this has come at a price for many citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Africa, who have been exposed to child labour and human right violations.
DR Congo accounts for at least 60% of worldwide cobalt and has about 50% of known global cobalt reserves. Other cobalt producing countries include Russia, Cuba, Philippines, Brazil, Australia, and Canada. In 2018 DRC alone produced 160,000 metric tonnes of cobalt, while the entire EU produced only 2,300 metric tonnes.
Since cobalt forms an essential element in the lithium-ion battery for electric vehicles and electronics, a report by the RCS Global forecasts that “The next few years will see worldwide consumption of cobalt rise significantly as demand from the electric vehicle market comes online.” It further predicts that by 2020, over three-quarters of all such batteries in the world will contain cobalt.
The demand for cobalt is being driven by the growing need for clean and renewable energy
According to the RCS report, unless a visible substitute is found, the demand for cobalt will continue to rise drastically. It is, for this reason, the Joint Research Centre in a report presented to EU Raw Material Week in Brussels warned that “steps must be taken to boost supply and curb demand without hindering the growth in electric vehicles .”
Although there are other substitutes, none can be compared by cobalt which is preferred by manufacturers because it makes batteries to produce more power and to last longer.
But as the demand keeps on rising, more focus and pressure has been placed on cobalt in the DR Congo to satisfy global market needs. This is because there is little coming from other cobalt producing countries in the world.
However, this could also be sustaining human rights abuses, according to Joshua Rosenzweig, Strategy Advisor on Business and Human Rights at Amnesty International. Children and adults working in cobalt mining sites in DR Congo have been subjected to abuses and exploitation by big mining companies and Chinese middlemen who are capitalising on the demand to make huge profits.
An investigation conducted by Amnesty International in 2016, found that cobalt mined by adults and children in horrendous conditions in the DRC is entering the supply chains of some of the world’s biggest brands such as Apple and BMW.
“When we approached these companies we were alarmed to find out that many were failing to ask basic questions about where their cobalt comes from,” said Seema Joshi, Head of Business and Human Rights at Amnesty International.
Most cobalt mines are located in the province of Katanga and are owned by the Chinese. Amnesty International documented children and adults mining cobalt in narrow makeshift tunnels, which were at risk of collapsing anytime. They didn’t have protective gear putting them at risk of skin diseases and lung infections. UNICEF estimates 40,000 children work in slave-like condition in cobalt mines across the country.
Cobalt is such a dangerous element to both human beings and animals. According to The Daily Mail,” even simply eating vegetables grown in local soil can cause diarrhoea and vomiting, thyroid damage and fatal lung diseases, while fish and birds cannot survive in the area.”
Since most of the cobalt is mined by hand, the children are exposed to toxic dust which apart from damaging the eyes, can also cause skin disease and a deadly lung infection. The UN estimates that around 80 children die in the mines every year, but the number could even be higher since many go unregistered after being buried underground by the collapsing tunnels.
The children interviewed by Amnesty International complained how the job was difficult. They said they work up to 12 hours a day for a payment of only one to two dollars a day. “Even the children who went to school worked 10-12 hours during the weekend and school holidays. and the time before and after school.”
One of the children named Paul aged 14 said he started working in underground mining tunnels when he was just 12. He said he would often spend 24 hours down the tunnels. “I arrived in the morning and would leave the following morning,” he said.
Other children said that the work exposed them to extreme conditions. “There is lots of dust, it is very easy to catch colds, and we hurt all over,” said Dany. The children also complained that at times they are assaulted by security men guarding the mines, while girls as young as ten are subjected to sexual attacks at the mines.
One former child miner called, Kongolo Mashingamano Reagen narrated his ordeal to the Financial Times, saying, “It was very tiring, very difficult. I watched too many collapses. I have seen children dying in the mines.” Despite spending his day carrying 25 kg sacks of cobalt, Kongolo wasn’t paid but received only food and accommodation as his wages. Ziki Swaze another child miner told CBS that he works at the mine to support his family since his parents died.
Cobalt has also brought health risks to the locals. One doctor in the village of Kempsa told SKY News that many children are born with mysterious diseases in what he believes is a result of cobalt. “There are lots of infections they’re born with, sometimes rashes, sometimes their bodies are covered in spots,” he said.
Such abuses and risks prompted human rights organisations like Amnesty International to put pressure on major vehicle and electronic manufacturing companies to prove that they are not profiting from the misery of miners working in terrible conditions in the DRC. “The energy solutions of the future must not be built on human rights abuses, ” said Amnesty International.
The organisation, however, still feels that the electronics and electric vehicle companies are still not doing enough to stop abuses entering their cobalt supply chains, three years after it exposed how their products could be linked to child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“Nearly two years on, some of the richest and most powerful companies in the world are still making excuses for not investigating their supply chains. Even those who are investigating are failing to disclose the human rights risks and abuses they find. If companies are in the dark about where their cobalt comes from, so are their customers,” said the organisation’s spokesman.
Ideally, companies have an individual responsibility to identify, prevent, address and account for human rights abuses in their cobalt supply chains in the DR Congo.
To assess how companies are becoming responsible, Amnesty assessed electronic and vehicle companies on five criteria that reflect international standards. They included the requirement that “companies carry out what are known as “due diligence” checks on their supply chain and the requirement that they are transparent about the associated human rights risks.”
The assessment report revealed that Apple is currently the industry leader in terms of cobalt sourcing, and was working with its cobalt supplier in DR Congo, to identify and address child labour. The report also observed that “Dell and HP have shown signs of potential. They have begun to investigate their supply links, and have in place some of the stronger policies for detecting human rights risks and abuses in their cobalt supply chains.”
Among electric car manufacturers, the survey ranked BMW as the best although there were areas that needed improvement. “It has made some improvements to its supply chain policies and practices concerning cobalt, but still has not disclosed its smelters and refiners. It also has no plans to disclose any assessments of its smelters’ human rights due diligence practices.”
However, fighting child labour and other abuses in the DR Congo cobalt mines, cannot be fought by human rights organisations alone. It also requires action and commitment from the government.
Following intentional outcry generated by the Amnesty report of 2016, DR Congo government came up with a plan to remove children from all artisanal mines by 2025. This will be very difficult to achieve because of the state of the economy of the country. Many children choose to work at the mines to provide for themselves and their families since their parents are unemployed or have very little income.
Unless the economy is stabilised, free education provided and jobs created, more children and adults will continue to be exploited and abused at the mines. Tough regulatory measures will also have to be put in place to protect those living around and those working in cobalt mining sites.