Human rights organizations have come together this week to express concern for cobalt miners in the Lualaba and Haut-Katanga provinces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following reports of on-site confinement policies. To stay operational during COVID-19, at least six Congolese mining companies have been reported as being under complete or partial lockdown for over two months. Cobalt, once deemed to be worthless, is now in high demand for its value in devices with rechargeable batteries, including electric cars.
Writing in a report in April, the DRC’s Mining Minister, Willy Kitobo Samsoni, warned that closing mines due to COVID-19 risks would “cause problems of insecurity in cities because of the return of large masses of miners without means of subsistence (…) We will risk moving from a health crisis to an economic crisis, which would in turn lead to a social crisis.’’ Samsoni instead advocated for a policy of sending teams in to train manual miners on social distancing and disease prevention. The DRC is heavily reliant on mining, it is an industry that contributes 32% of GDP and was a staggering 95% of export revenue in 2018. There are an estimated 200,000 workers in the DRC who earn their living through manually digging copper and cobalt.
On Thursday, a group of 11 non-governmental organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and African Resources Watch (AfreWatch) signed a letter addressed to 12 of the DRC’s biggest cobalt and copper mining companies calling for an end to mandatory mine-site confinement policies. The letter reported how in many mines’ workers have been given an ultimatum: stay on-site permanently and work, or lose your job. Citing the United Nations Guiding Principle on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the group reminds the mine companies that they “have the responsibility to respect workers’ rights and human rights”.
They also draw attention to the conditions of confinement- reporting insufficient food and water supplies, crowded and unsanitary accommodation, and a lack of personal protective equipment. The group has urged that mining companies end confinement policies, giving workers a free and fair choice to commute and live at home. Where companies continue such policies, the group stressed the right of employees to ensure adequate living conditions.
The DRC is the world’s biggest producer of cobalt, accounting for around 70% of global supply. Cobalt allows batteries to operate safely and for long periods, making it an invaluable resource for devices with rechargeable batteries. Such a resource is also of interest to demands for cleaner energy initiatives such as electric cars. Yet there have long been concerns about the perilous conditions of cobalt miners in the DRC and the prevalence of child miners.
In 2016, a report by Amnesty International and AfreWatch found that children as young as seven are working up to twelve hours a day, carrying heavy loads and often without basic protective equipment such as gloves or facemasks. The report called on multinational companies who use the metal to conduct human rights due diligence. In December 2019, Apple, Google, Tesla, and Microsoft were amongst the companies named in a lawsuit filed by the International Rights Advocates, where they stand accused of knowing that cobalt used in their products could be linked to child labour and the related injury and deaths of child miners.
The demand for cobalt continues to soar as we imagine a low-carbon future, and the world will continue to look to the DRC for much of this supply. Mining is a crucial industry in the survival of the Congolese economy, but greed and demand should not come at the expense of workers’ rights. During the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, a condition of sale should be the impermissibility of mandatory confinement, hazardous conditions, and child labour, with responsibility falling to the wealthy multinational companies to ensure the safe survival of this industry.
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