Dirty cobalt: corporations in the dock

Hardly any work is as dangerous for children as work in the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Especially cobalt ore, which they mine there, is coveted. Among other things, it is processed in electronic components and especially in batteries. Without cobalt, the engine of the digital society would no longer run – quite literally.

If you’re reading us on your phone right now, you’re probably tapping around on a product of child labor, at least to a small extent. Without cobalt there would be no rechargeable battery. Unless you use a “Fairphone”. And not even then can you be sure. “Fairphone” says that while it tries hard to exclude child labour when purchasing materials such as Gold, copper and cobalt, it admits that this is not always possible.

The digital society lives partly at the expense of children

If an accident happens, the children and their families are usually on their own. In December 2019, parents and children from the Democratic Republic of Congo sued in a US court for damages. The 14 plaintiffs have lost children due to accidents or are permanently restricted after accidents with serious injuries.

At least three fifths of the cobalt consumed worldwide comes from the DRC, where it is mined both in small-scale mining and by large companies. According to forecasts, cobalt demand will continue to increase and roughly double by 2026. One reason for this: kilos of cobalt is installed in the batteries of electric cars. At the expense of the health of children who do the dangerous dirty work. Those who earn from the end products bear at least part of the responsibility, say lawyers in the US and sue the big Tech companies.

Cobalt is in almost everything

If you occasionally follow reports of child labour, you need to know that your TV, food processor and a number of other everyday items also contain building blocks that are most likely to contain child labour. Children’s hands not only mine cobalt and copper, they also manufacture electronic parts and slaughter electronic scrap. The manufacturers, it is to be assumed, also know this.

The lawsuit is directed, and this is somewhat spectacular, against five top Silicon Valley companies: Apple, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Dell, Microsoft and Tesla. All five use cobalt from the Congo. And of this even “Fairphone” says, because of the partly informal or illegal mining and the conditions in the DRK it is not possible to exclude child labor in the production completely.

Toil in the Mine for a dollar a day

The indictment discloses the conditions under which cobalt is mined in the official mines. For example, one of the plaintiffs, whose names are anonymized for their safety, is suing for damages after the accident of his son. “John Doe 4” started working in the mines at the age of eleven. He earned a Dollar a day.

When he was 16, a collapsing pit killed his brother and shattered his leg. He can’t use it anymore. Another is paraplegic after a serious accident, a third will never be able to work again with injured legs and a shattered hip. They and their families do not receive support. You can hardly pay the bills for the treatment.

The origin of the ore is already obscured during processing

Some plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the US Tech giants or their children worked for the Swiss company Glencore and its subcontractors. Glencore is selling the cobalt ore to Belgian company Umicore, which in turn is passing on the reclaimed ore to Apple, Alphabet, Samsung and other major companies. In doing so, it mixes cobalt from unsuspected sources with such from child labor and also conceals its origin in other ways, say the plaintiff’s representatives. Other companies worked for Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, which supplies at least to Apple, Dell and Microsoft.

The defendants know the reality: the cobalt mining sector of the Democratic Republic of Congo is dependent on children.

The lawsuit is also about damages, but above all about how much responsibility knowledge brings with it. “The defendants know the reality that the cobalt mining sector of the Democratic Republic of Congo is dependent on children, and have known this for quite some time,” says the indictment of the US Organization “International Rights Advocates” (IRA). The lawyers accuse Google, Apple, Tesla of " knowingly encouraging and supporting the cruel and brutal use of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to mine cobalt." If there is something like" aiding and abetting human rights violations, " that is the wording for it.

A Fund to repair human rights

Although processing companies could do more, experts see it as difficult to combat child labour in Congo. As in many resource-rich countries, the population is sometimes very poor. Another obstacle is corruption-controls in Congo are difficult to hopeless. A ban, which would also be enforced, would probably only drive child laborers and their clients further into illegality. Countries in which the political situation is less problematic, such as Australia, produce too little cobalt to be diverted to their production.

The “International Rights Advocates” also know this. They are calling for a fund that at least looks after the victims of mine accidents and their survivors and pays for the treatment of Health and environmental damage caused by cobalt mining. Cobalt occurs naturally in the human body, but in larger doses it is harmful to health and the environment. In other parts of the world, these concerns alone would be enough to make a Mine safer or close it altogether.

Exploitation that does not take place in secret

According to UNICEF estimates, around 30,000 to 40,000 children work in the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not all do heavy work and not all children die or have serious accidents. But almost all work for two to three dollars a day. Hardly anything comes to you from the profits of the supply chain. Occupational Health and safety does not exist, certainly not at all. Digging is done with everything that is suitable. Some have to carry heavy loads and work in unsafe tunnels.

Their work does not take place in secret. Just a five-minute drive from the city of Kolwezi in southern Congo, it is easy to find children working in the mines, says Amnesty International employee Mark Dummett in the Guardian. Among other things, the IRA are suing in the USA because “decisions are made there that favour the damages suffered by the plaintiffs”.