A Tale of Cobalt and Tears: The Brutal Reality of Congolese Cobalt Slave Labor

  • Welcome readers, this full-length blog post is complementary to my last post which was a poem I wrote about the cobalt situation in the Congo (DRC). If you haven’t read my last post, check it out after reading this or before, it’s up to you. Anyway, leave a like if you’ve learned something new and enjoyed it. Also, hit that follow button so you can stay up to date with my future posts. I am because we are, that’s Ubuntu. As always, peace and keep it real.

Background on the DCR Cobalt Situation 

The Democratic Republic of Congo is responsible for over 70% of the world’s supply of cobalt. Our smartphones, computers, and electric vehicles are all powered by it. Even though the DRC possesses more cobalt reserves than the rest of the planet, a “clean” cobalt supply chain from the country doesn’t exist because everything that happens in terms of extraction is outright dirty. In other words, the unsafe working conditions artisanal miners and Congolese children have to endure are grueling and they continue to do it so they can provide whatever they can for their families. 

People are working in subhuman and hazardous conditions. To illustrate, millions of trees have been cut down, the air is polluted with dust and grit, and the water has been contaminated with toxins from the mining process. Contact with an element like cobalt is dangerous and the Congolese miners young and old are risking their lives every day so they can funnel the global supply chain with cobalt under the supervision of stringent Congolese government officials who are collaborating with Chinese stakeholders. Virtually all lithium-ion manufacturers use cobalt rechargeable batteries in the world today. Concerning that, there is a conflation from people outside the Congo between the cobalt extraction done by the high-tech industrial mining companies and the excavation done by artisanal miners. In essence, the two are fundamentally intertwined. To further explain, there’s cross-contamination that occurs between industrial excavator-derived cobalt and cobalt dug by men, women, and children with their bare hands. On top of that, everything is done without healthcare regulations. Furthermore, artisanal miners working to dig up cobalt for the Congolese government are like hamsters running in a wheel and are constantly feeding cobalt into the formal supply chain. Cobalt plays a vital role in tech devices and is something that is facilitating a transition to sustainable energy sources. In terms of the supply chain, there needs to be an emphasis on fixing the supply chain instead of renouncing it entirely. It powers the global GDP and without it, major losses will occur. Not to mention, there needs to be an awareness and exposure of the degradation that is happening at the expense of destitute people living in an environment that supplies a chain of cobalt amidst a horror show. All of this will in hopes bring awareness to the misinformed and for the most part oblivious world that changes are in dire need. 

The legality of cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Under Congolese law, artisanal mining is illegal and there should not be ANY industrial mining taking place. And yet, it continuously happens all because of a corrupt and neglectful Congolese government that demands workers be a part of a penny wage labor to boost production. In other words, the Congolese government sees artisanal mining as a low-cost high-reward situation that they and their stakeholders can profit from and funnel the global supply chain. Regarding that, the subhuman levels of work those in power are subjecting the Congolese to are excruciating and egregious. Additionally, there is the disheartening fact that Congolese children are worked to the bone and deprived of an education. In addition, thousands of people have been displaced because their villages were prime targets for bulldozing, and with that, they turned into a place for mining activity. Imagine for a moment you’re in a society where millions of people barely get a dollar or two and will accept any labor opportunities and are told that’s enough for you to survive, so be grateful. In any case, there isn’t much of an alternative, no other source of income or prospects to improve their livelihood, so the Congolese acquiesce and become the global supply chain “Ants”. A journey that leads to scarcity and survival on meager wages begins with them being crammed in a tight pit with 10,000 fellow Congolese. They’re paid a few dollars so they can produce thousands of tons of cobalt per year for practically no wages. Surely this can’t be legal, right?

The dangers of working in artisanal mines

Artisanal miners’ lives are in peril every day they rise to start their work in the mines, and the injuries they sustain aren’t something that is given attention to nor cared about by the government. To be specific, they have to withstand the overwhelming mountain of gravel and stone that avalanches down and has crushed legs, arms, and spines. There are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 tunnels dug by hand every day by miners and they are fully aware that one wrong move could be their demise. As mentioned before, the government acts callously about the miners’ well-being and to make this even more somber is that the miners have no choice but to continue even if they’re gravely injured. Imagine that, having to endure the government’s morbid disposition that forces you to work after you’ve unfortunately lost a limb excavating cobalt for a rapacious government in pits that will collapse and bury you alive. And you know what? The government wants you to put on a “band-aid” and suffer in silence because you still have to continue this strenuous work for the sake of your family’s livelihood and fatten their pockets. By the same token, children are also victims of these accidents and are at times buried alive in collapsed tunnels with older miners. Mothers of those children are replete with grief and it’s not hard to fathom that more Congolese families will be displaced and lose loved ones in the future due to this slave labor. Congolese children have a bleak outlook on their lives and they are abused psychologically and physically. It all starts with militants abducting, trafficking, and recruiting children from all parts of the Congo. Moreover, the children have to transfer all of their earnings to fund militia groups, and thus, the children are the most heavily exploited people in the Congo mines. 

The ongoing child labor trafficking in mines

As previously mentioned, Congolese children are the most heavily exploited people who make up the mining labor force. Equally important, all the arduous work they do will and has caused debilitating effects on their growth and makes them vulnerable to health ailments. The constant trafficking hampers their life expectancy and this is due to militias and their violent and exploitative tactics. With that in mind, a blind eye is turned to this suffering which is allowed by the Congolese government, so the abuse persists. Granted, the country is a war-torn deeply impoverished nation that has had generational atrocities that date back centuries, from the slave trade to colonialism. So, it’s not hard to understand why the Congo would accept when foreign stakeholders (China) flaunt large sums of money.  They (DRC) perceive them (China) as an ally to help in their recovery to prosperity from their destitute state of living. Now, having said all that, everything said thus far has been negative but the Congo in the past had an optimistic outlook on its resource-rich land all thanks to former president Patrice Lumumba. However, that would all change once someone assassinated him. Lumumba made a vow that the country’s immense mineral riches and resources would use those said mineral riches and resources for the benefit of all Congolese, but he was unfortunately executed grotesquely six months after making that decree. His body was chopped into pieces, and dissolved in acid. To make matters worse, he was replaced by a bloody dictator who didn’t show any semblance of fairness and led his government through corruption and they made sure to keep the minerals flowing in the “right” direction. It’s an unsettling thought that positivity for the betterment of a country as rich with resources as the Congo succumbed to the enticing power brokers at the top of the supply chain and the Global North. Regarding that, if you don’t “play ball”, the government would see you as defying authority and would erase you from existence. 

In summary, the inhumane conditions and corruption that exist in the Congo when it comes to cobalt mining is a stark reminder of the global inequality and injustice that persists but it’s not immutable, with awareness there are ways to improve the lives ravaged by poverty, and pain. Despite international efforts to address this issue, consistent collective efforts need to be made to end the exploitation of those who are most vulnerable and to ensure that human rights are respected in all aspects. 

Works Cited

Gross, Terry. “How ‘Modern-Day Slavery’ in the Congo Powers the Rechargeable Battery Economy.” NPR, NPR, 1 Feb. 2023, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2023/02/01/1152893248/red-cobalt-congo-drc-mining-siddharth-kara.

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