Imagine growing up in a world with no guarantees, with nothing to your name, and where fundamental human rights are not “fundamental.” This is the reality for many in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC is one of the five poorest nations in the world. In 2022, over 60 percent of the population lived on approximately two dollars a day.1 In the 2020 Human Capital Index, the DRC ranked 164 out of 174 countries, and its score of 0.37 was below the average for the group of least-developed countries and for the Sub-Saharan African region.2 Therefore, people are forced to do whatever they can to survive, and for many that means working in the cobalt mines. Oftentimes, the primary reason Congolese will work in the mines simply boils down to generational and structural poverty. This desperation to survive forces them to accept work under very dangerous conditions with numerous hazards. This is the case for fourteen-year-old Eddie who worked in the Kolwezi mines, nine-year old Kabedi who worked in cobalt mines until she turned twelve, and adult miner Pierre, who was injured on the job and continued working in hazardous conditions even after recovering from his accident.3 Nonetheless, the DRC mining industry has steadily increased the nation’s economic growth, from 6.20 percent in 2021 to 8.60 percent in 2022.4 The DRC cobalt mining industry provides one of the only job opportunities in the area, and as such it offers a welcome economic boost: an escape from starvation in a country where the majority of the population lives in absolute poverty. Yet, it also presents serious security issues on top of the multiple human rights violations resulting from maximizing profits for a few. Mine operators are aware of how desperate their workforce is, and they use this to exploit workers without any safeguards in this degrading and dangerous environment. Additionally, the political context in the DRC and the total remote land area to secure, mean the government often turns to diverse militia or international mercenaries who work for large shares of the profits from these mines. Militia, rebel groups, and international mercenaries tend to escalate the violence in this region to retain them under their control and benefit from the mining industries they protect. Government priorities focus on the nation’s own survival rather than addressing labor violations or enforcing bans on child labor. Congolese workers, like Eddie, Kabedi, and Pierre, bear the brunt of these issues, not the companies or rebel groups who export these minerals, neither are consumers aware in far away lands of the presence of cobalt inside their electronics.
Cobalt, a critical mineral, is a silvery-blue metal that can be magnetized to make particularly powerful magnets.5 This aspect makes cobalt extremely important in the manufacturing of rechargeable batteries, including those found in smartphones, computers, and electric vehicles, and it will also be a pivotal mineral in the future development of clean energy devices and sources.6 The demand for this mineral is already tremendous across the world, and as the need for these electronics increases, so too does the demand for cobalt. The DRC remains the world’s leading producer of cobalt. In 2020, it supplied approximately 67 percent of the global supply.7 The majority of this cobalt comes from a byproduct of copper mining; however the DRC and Morocco are the only two countries where primary cobalt deposits are mined.8 The total mineral wealth in the DRC is estimated in the trillions of dollars, again providing a huge economic opportunity for a country that desperately needs it.9
However, the cobalt mining industry in the DRC brings security concerns and serious hazards for the Congolese people. Approximately 15 to 30 percent of the DRC’s cobalt is produced in artisanal and small-scale mines (ASMs), and these mines are rife with human rights abuses throughout their operation.10 In the majority of these mines, workers are not given any basic protective equipment like helmets, gloves, and boots; on the contrary, many often labor barefoot.11 In these unregulated mines, work accidents are frequent and life-threatening. Most accidents and fatalities in these small mines are neither recorded nor reported. However, between September 2014 and December 2015 the DRC’s United Nations-run radio station, Radio Okapi, reported mining accidents resulting in over 80 fatalities in one province.12 The same radio station reported over 250 mining-related deaths in the DRC between June 2015 and June 2020.13 As an example of the sheer magnitude of the problem, following the death of over 40 Congolese cobalt miners after a June 2019 landslide at a Glencore-owned mine in Kolwezi, one miner noted the worst thing he experienced working the mines was seeing, “the sheer number of dead bodies when there were cave-ins.”14 These accidents are a daily occurrences that threaten the lives of the children and adults, of all those working so hard to earn a living. In 2011 in the Kasulo, Kolwezi ASMs, an adult worker named Pierre was considered one of the lucky ones when a tunnel caved in which only broke his leg; he was successfully pulled out of the mine by his coworkers. Pierre was then out of work recovering for the next six months, but he fared better than the thousands of Congolese who were killed working without basic safety conditions and without any protective mining equipment. Pierre returned to the mines following his accident, and as of 2015, he has continued laboring under the same unregulated and life threatening conditions.15 Along with the lack of basic safety materials and dangerous physical structure of the mines, research has shown exposure to cobalt can have short-term and long-term health effects, including causing cancer.16 The risk of long-term illnesses adds another layers of insecurity, of injury, or death for mine workers. Altogether, the labor standards in the DRC’s cobalt mines remain inadequate and leave Congolese workers in peril, in this unforgivingly deadly environment.
The exploitation of child labor constitutes a very large portion of the DRC cobalt mining industry. Thousands of children work daily in mines in the Copperbelt region, in both large mines and ASMs, and the percentage of children working in mines is highest within ASM locations. The exact number of child miners in the cobalt industry is unknown, but estimates indicate upwards of 35,000 children work daily in cobalt mines in the DRC. These children survive in deplorable and hazardous conditions, akin to slave-like forced child labor. Even if some children willingly work in these mines, it is because they lack any other viable options in the structural confines of their economic environment.17 The children live in debilitating poverty, and they simply lack alternatives to working in the mines to pay for their school fees and food. The DRC provides free primary education for children, however, due to a lack of state funding students are required to pay a monthly fee which most cannot afford. Take the case of a fourteen-year-old Congolese boy named Eddie, who starts work in the Kolwezi cobalt mines at 6 a.m. and works until he goes to school at 9 a.m. Eddie was sent to work in the mines by his parents to pay for his school uniforms and books, and to contribute to his family as a whole.18 Following the death of her father, a nine-year-old Congolese girl, Kabedi, worked in a cobalt ASM for three years until she was twelve. This was her only path to help her mother, by working from morning to night, seven days a week at the expense of her own well-being and education.19 Workers like Pierre, Eddie, and Kabedi brave the hazards of the DRC cobalt mines daily, earning meager amounts of money that barely let them survive.
A major security concern in the DRC mines for any rare minerals or metals comes from the propensity of foreign direct investments in this industry. Investments can spur economic growth that seems to benefit the population in the short-term However, in the long-term this depletes resource rich reserves for a mere fraction of the wealth it represents. Moreover, most profits feed corruption of local and national officials while impoverishing the Congolese population. As of 2021, eight of the fourteen largest cobalt mines in the DRC were Chinese-owned. Switzerland, China, and India owned the five largest mines in the country.20 Many of these foreign mines stem from long-term deals created in the early 2000s, such as a 2007 deal struck between two Chinese companies and former DRC President Joseph Kabila who exchanged a 68 percent stake in a cobalt-and-copper partnership for Chinese promises of investing in the local infrastructure. At the time, this partnership and many others, seemed like a good deal that was mutually beneficial to both parties, but now, and as China has amended the terms of many deals like these to increase payments to Chinese companies while failing to uphold the promised infrastructure development, the DRC has come to recognize national security concerns from foreign majority ownership. Additionally, these deals have enhanced corruption throughout the country, and it is estimated the deals struck with then-President Kabila paid as much as 55 million U.S. dollars to his family while failing to invest in human security aspects of the cobalt mining industry.21 Along with the corruption, historically, many foreign mines utilize output from ASMs, and when they have come under scrutiny for doing so, they have outwardly pledged to avoid utilizing these sources going forward, but failed to fix the larger human security issues present in those mines.22 Foreign buyers often short Congolese cobalt sellers. China controls the majority of the supply chain which gives them the ability to set the purchase price. In recent years, many Congolese have attributed their lower incomes from mining to the increased Chinese buyer activity in the region who depress the price.23 Instead of helping the DRC take advantage of its own resources or addressing the human security problems in the mines, foreign mining companies have benefitted themselves, their corrupt accomplices, and their countries while stomping out the potential of the Congolese people.
Despite the frequently documented human rights abuses and national security concerns with foreign control of the DRC cobalt mines, mining continues and will not be shut down. Many within the cobalt supply chain have tried to refrain from purchasing cobalt from ASMs and poorly regulated mines, however, without their production the supply chain simply cannot meet the demand from its buyers.24 As our world relies more heavily on electronic brains for its cars, cell phones, batteries, and any new technology, the demand for cobalt will increase exponentially in the next few years. Since neither the government of the DRC nor any other international actor cares to reform the cobalt mining industry, how can we better address these human security issues to better protect local citizens, and children, like Eddie, Kabedi, and Pierre?
Through a concerted effort between the DRC government, private and public enterprises, and global and rights organizations ASMs must be better supported and regulated. These small mines are not going away as people desperately need the income and the supply chains constantly increase the demand. Rather than ignoring the issue or immediately shutting down a mine, these entities must recognize that the problem will simply move elsewhere until it is equally addressed. These ASMs, and other mines with documented human security concerns, should instead be better formalized via the implementation of site access controls, security equipment, and safety measures. DRC officials must also strive to establish basic labor standards.25 The DRC government and other entities must enable these changes and embrace the ASM environment, if there is any hope of reducing deaths, dismemberment, and illnesses. In 2020, the DRC created a state monopoly that will buy output not produced by industrial operators (i.e. that produced from ASMs), to better regulate the price of the resource.26 This is a good first step towards regulating these mines, but again, additional work focused on human security to regulate and enforce safer conditions in the cobalt mining industry is needed. Along with focusing on regulating these mines, the DRC government must also work to eradicate child labor. To do so, there must be consistent, concerted effort to reduce barriers to education, including removing any and all school fees, providing transportation to school, and decreasing food insecurity so these children can focus on their education rather than work to feed themselves and their families.27 This will take many outside partnerships and assistance. But, improving children’s lives today will ultimately benefit the DRC and its people in the long run.
Finally, the DRC must consider nationalizing foreign companies that overtook the DRC natural resource extraction sector to renegotiate the terms of business. In the last few years, the nation has begun to move in the right direction with some of its recent actions. As an example, in 2018 it changed its mining code to allow for increased taxes on mining firms operating in the country and increased government royalties from the entire industry, despite pushback from foreign mining businesses.28 The DRC must continue exploring changes such as these and work to ensure the foreign companies within the DRC employ local Congolese citizens and pay fair wages while operating in safer working conditions. The DRC government must also increase domestic cobalt production through both state mining avenues and via encouraging new private Congolese cobalt enterprises. This might require the government to seek outside funding from entities like the African Union, the World Bank, or the East African Community it recently joined. Ultimately, reducing and monitoring practices by foreign investors in the cobalt industry may be the only path to protecting Congolese workers in the long run. Together, these actions give the DRC government a pathway forward, even when they cannot yet address every human security issue present in the cobalt mining industry. Confronting daily human rights violations can ultimately give Eddie, Kabedi, and Pierre, and all Congolese people, a better chance at survival and a brighter future.