The United States is taking steps to ban products made with minerals mined through child labour from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority of the mines targeted are in areas where China has an enormous stake. The nation owns the bulk of the D.R.C.’s cobalt mines – a position which, because the minerals found there are critical to make lithium ion batteries, strengthens its control over the global supply chain for electrical vehicle batteries and other products.
Amnesty International put blame on both Chinese firms for child labour in Congo’s cobalt mining and multinational tech firms for failing to address the negative human rights issue in their supply chains in a 2016 report, and Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey says that China uses forced labour and exploits children to mine cobalt in the impoverished but resource-rich central African country. In a further criticism of China’s involvement, Smith’s office has stated that “on the backs of trafficked workers and child laborers, the Chinese Communist Party is exploiting the vast cobalt resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo to fuel its economy and global agenda.” The bill’s supporters echo these sentiments, citing terrible working conditions for the mines’ underage labourers and growing concerns over China’s role in the global technology materials market.
The bill does not mention China by name, but explicitly states that, if passed, would prohibit importing “goods, wares, articles, or merchandise containing metals or minerals, in particular cobalt and lithium and their derivatives, mined, produced, smelted or processed, wholly or in part, by child labour or forced labour in the D.R.C.”
The U.S. needs to take a firm stance against child labour. While the U.S. does have strong laws to that extent within the nation, it is just as important to apply those moral standards to purchases and trade deals made with foreign nations. The U.S. should focus on funding cobalt mining in other areas which provide fair compensation to their laborers and place an embargo on any goods obtained through unethical means. In doing so, the U.S. would put pressure on the D.R.C. to change its labour laws.
The bill to ban the purchase of cobalt from child labour in the D.R.C. is also consequential on the national scale. According to an article published by Africa News, China owns a 68% stake in Sicomines, the lead copper and cobalt joint venture, in collaboration with the D.R.C.’s state mining firm Gecamines. The partnership was formed after a 2008 deal which promised help creating better infrastructure in return for raw materials. The D.R.C. is now hoping to modify the deal, claiming that it is not receiving adequate compensation for its resources.
A ban targeting working conditions which infringe on human rights and the partnerships which allow those conditions to exist would strike a firm blow against child labour and its proponents. The U.S. must stop supporting child labour and by extension, through the ownership of the mines, China, through its purchase of cobalt from the D.R.C.
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