New research reveals dire conditions, discrimination and extremely low pay at some of the world’s largest industrial cobalt mines operated by multinational mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The acceleration of EV production appears to be linked to serious labour rights abuses, as revealed by the new research at five industrial mines in Congo where cobalt is produced.
Congolese workers interviewed for the research said they received very low pay and were subjected to excessive working hours, degrading treatment, violence, discrimination, racism, unsafe working conditions, and a disregard for even basic health provision.
Some workers described being kicked, slapped, beaten with sticks, insulted, shouted at, or pulled around by their ears. Others reported severe discrimination and abuse at Chinese-operated mines.
The labour rights abuses are directly linked to an outsourcing model whereby workers are employed indirectly via subcontracting firms.
Those interviewed for the report said the multinational companies do so to reduce labour costs, to limit their legal liabilities and to prevent workers from joining unions.
Workers hired indirectly by the mines earn extremely low wages. They have limited healthcare benefits, sometimes as low as $10 per month, or none at all, even though Congolese law requires employers to provide free healthcare to workers and their dependents.
The findings are based on detailed research over 28 months and 130 interviews by Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), and Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ).
Four of the five mines featured in the research said they abide by international and industry standards and pointed to internal human rights standards they had developed. The degree to which these standards applied to a mine’s entire workforce (direct as well as indirect hires) was often unclear.
In their report, RAID and CAJJ trace the cobalt from the five mines through the supply chain to EV manufacturers. These consumer-facing companies say they seek to source minerals responsibly. Although such commitments are much needed, none of the growing number of industry initiatives aimed at supply chains are binding and many do not cover workers’ exploitation or a broad range of labour rights.
Author Siddharth Kara is sounding the alarm on growing human rights issue in the Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DCR) after he witnessed workers, including children, laboring in cobalt mines for $2- a day.
Cobalt, a key chemical element found in lithium-ion batteries and used in many everyday devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, is mined in appalling conditions in the DCR, according to Kara.
Roughly 90% of the world’s cobalt supply is mined in the DCR.
Kara, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Carr Center for Human Rights, painted a grim picture of life for African families, saying “there are hundreds of thousands of the poorest people on the planet mining for cobalt.”
“The moral clock has been dialed back to colonial times. They’re doing it for $2-a-day and for them, it’s the difference between whether or not they eat that day, so they don’t have the option of saying no,” he said.
Tech giants like Apple, Tesla, Microsoft and Samsung have come under fire for turning a blind eye to the exploitation of workers while publicly insisting they only trade with cobalt suppliers, smelters and refiners who adhere to rigorous work standards.
Kara said the photos he took of young children no older than six or seven years old carrying large bags of rocks and mothers working laboriously while carrying their babies paint a different reality.
A growing trend nationwide of pushing for more eco-friendly products and electric vehicles (EV) is exacerbating the issue in the DCR, according to Kara.
“It’s supposed to be a green choice, getting an EV. Well, it’s not green for everybody,” he said.
The human rights activist and author of the upcoming book “Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives,” added that American companies need to change course and re-evaluate their relationship with cobalt suppliers who put profit over people.
“Companies initiate the demand for cobalt. It starts with them – it is their responsibility,” he said. “The supply chain only exists because of demand. They all say they source it ethically, they will all say supply chains are ethical but then you go to the Congo and you see it’s not true.”
Tesla, in 2020, closed a deal with Glencore, a Canadian mining company that runs a cobalt and copper mine in the Katanga region, in an effort to increase its acquisition of cobalt for its electric car batteries.
CEO Elon Musk announced in 2022 the company has plans to move away from buying cobalt batteries and instead produce batteries in-house.