The lives behind battery life in Congo’s cobalt mines

Jenna Stephens—Staff Writer

You sort through your email. A girl sorts through a pile of rocks searching for cobalt stones. You plug in your phone. A boy goes to sleep, hoping to recharge enough to work for 12 more hours in the mine tomorrow.

Smartphones, laptops, tablets and almost all other rechargeable devices contain cobalt in their batteries. A smart phone contains about 5 to 10 grams of cobalt and an electric car battery contains up to 15,000 grams of the element. This brittle, silvery metal, which is found in abundance in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has made news recently due to human rights abuses in the mining industry. Both cobalt mines and the tech companies which use their extracted materials are under scrutiny as children make up much of the workforce.

An Amnesty International report released in 2016 revealed that cobalt mined by children was being used in products from companies like Apple, Microsoft, Tesla and Samsung. Many of the companies released statements following this exposure, some saying they are committed to responsible sourcing of materials and that they had surveyed their supply chains.

“We must place pressure on companies and governments to act ethically in the sourcing of minerals and, where lapses occur, name and shame those that are not acting responsibly,” Alex Benkenstein, head of the Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme, wrote in an email.

Children trudge through trenches, navigating a path through mud and rocks. Some dig into the earth with shovels. Others dig with their bare hands. The youngest workers learn to pick pieces of cobalt out of the piles of rock and dirt, washing and sorting them in streams and lakes. In a few years, when they are stronger, they might haul sacks of cobalt on their shoulders over to the motorcycles which transport them to the market.

CBS News recently sent a team to the southern region of the DRC and shot footage of these scenes in the cobalt mines. They went on to investigate child labor in cobalt mines and what role the world’s biggest tech companies play in this industry.

Sarah Saiya Selenga, a sophomore at Dordt, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She, along with over 10 million other residents, calls the capital city, Kinshasa, home. The cobalt mines are in the eastern and southern regions of the DRC, about 2,000 kilometers away from where Selenga lives. She has not seen any cobalt mines in person, but she said she has read about the situations with the help of the internet. In Kinshasa, children go to school, study and play with friends after class. It is a stark contrast from the lives of those working in the mines.

The negative effects of cobalt mining are extensive. Children work in the mines instead of attending school. Videos filmed by CBS News show children trudging around the mines in shorts and colorful sandals, lacking the face masks, work clothing and gloves they should be wearing to protect themselves from the elements. Chronic exposure to dust and fumes can cause lung disease and asthma. Multiple cases of rare birth defects have been found in the babies of parents working in cobalt mines. The environments surrounding mines contain alarming radioactivity levels. Mining waste pollutes the communities’ drinking water.

Many cobalt miners in the DRC are artisanal miners. This means they are not officially employed, but rather work independently, mining by hand with their own basic tools. The workers lack labor standards or set salaries. But it cannot be ignored that artisanal mining is an important part of the economy in many developing countries. It provides employment and an income, although minimal, for the rural poor. Over half of the cobalt in the market today comes from the DRC, according to Darton Commodities Ltd., a research company in London. Twenty percent of this cobalt is mined by hand and tens of thousands of children are part of the process. Their work is not optional. It is necessary for survival.

“We thoroughly investigate any allegation made about our supply chain and only if our suppliers are unable or unwilling to meet our standards do we suspend or terminate business with them,” wrote representatives of Apple Inc. in a response to CBS News’ 2018 investigation. “There are real challenges with artisanal mining of cobalt in the DRC, but walking away would do nothing to improve conditions for the people or the environment.”

This last statement highlights the difficulty of banning child labor. How will families survive if their children cannot work? One of the children interviewed by CBS News is the only wage-earner in his household. His parents are dead and his grandmother is unable to work. Putting an end to child labor would protect these children from the horrific conditions of the mines, but they would not have money to buy food or attend school.

Selenga sees this as an issue. “They need the children to work to survive,” she said. “You can’t try to solve the problem there. You have to look higher up.”

She thinks the changes need to start at the top with the government and then work down. The DRC is rich in natural resources which play a big role in the economy of the nation. Shutting down cobalt mines would not solve the problem.

“We must recognize that this is a complex problem and that uninformed boycotting of minerals from certain areas can do more harm than good,” Benkenstein wrote.

“If we didn’t have all these problems going on, it would be a paradise on Earth,” Selenga said about her home country. But until changes in the cobalt mining industry are made, that paradise will continue to be a far-off dream for the children working to give life to our smartphones.

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