by Monique Kasonga
Image: Clint Budd / Flickr
When you look down at your phone, what do you think of? Do you think of all the happy memories that you’ve had it with you for, or all the important information that it holds? For most people living in the Western world, the answer is yes. However, what the technological consumer community seems to lack is an awareness of the cost of human life that comes with the creation of our phones. Cobalt is an important mineral for the production of the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries developed by companies like Apple, Samsung and major car manufacturers to power smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles. The growing demand for cobalt worldwide is met by employees, including children, who work in harsh and dangerous conditions. Over 50% of the world’s cobalt is unethically sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, located in Central Africa. Within these cobalt mines, an estimated 40,000 children labour to remove cobalt from the ground in unsafe conditions. This is a human rights crisis that is being explored by many, but a proper solution is yet to be devised.
In 2017, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of International Rights Advocates against Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla for “knowingly benefiting” from the “cruel” use of children as young as 6 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to mine cobalt”. Families of the injured children are pursuing forced labour damages and additional reimbursement for wrongful enrichment, negligent monitoring and deliberate infliction of emotional distress. The Congolese families explain in the charging documents that their children were motivated by extreme poverty to pursue work at large mining sites, alleging that they were paid as little as $2 USD a day for hazardous work digging for cobalt rocks with rudimentary instruments in dark, underground tunnels. IR Avocates claims that the companies named in the lawsuit were aware and had “specific knowledge” that the cobalt they use in their products is linked to child labour performed in hazardous conditions, and were complicit in the forced labour of the children. These large western corporations continue to profit and make significant financial advantages while exploiting the lack of labour laws that are present in other countries such as the DRC. For this reason, the case is being brought to the United States in order to properly deliver justice.
This is the first time that these major corporations have faced legal challenges associated to the mines that their cobalt is extracted from, yet the DRC has a long history of foreign exploitation of its natural resources. The Congo is a country full of natural resources, yet it faces extreme poverty as a result of the early Belgian colonialism. Today, more than five decades after Congo gained its independence from Belgium, it is its minerals that attract foreign companies.
When reflecting on the horrific things that take place in order for anyone to even be on an electronic device reading this article right now, it is difficult to know what to do. Do we boycott our phones and leave the digital world? Truly, that is not a viable solution, as we now use electronics in virtually every aspect of our life, whether it be for work, transportation, or even food. The problem isn’t that we have phones, but that we are not holding companies accountable. As consumers, we have begun to develop a detachment from the production of items. This has slowly led us to accept large corporations exploiting others, as long as we are able to receive our products at our door. Consumers, especially in the Western world, must demand for change and support those who are suffering. However, the biggest issue at hand is the lack of laws preventing the companies from exploiting these children in the first place.
The issue at hand is a complex one, but there are solutions and policies that have been proposed. The question impending is mainly how manufacturers and consumers can ensure that the cobalt which finds its way into their electronic devices is not tainted with the blood of child miners. Firstly, it is important that child labour within cobalt mines immediately cease until any long-term strategies are completely implemented and enforced. This is a major issue in that children in the DRC, the bearers of their nations’ future, are inhibited from going to school and instead face unsafe work conditions in mines every day that could affect their health for the rest of their lives. Secondly, any proposed policies must contain a new system of accountability and knowledge within these large corporations. Western countries must not allow these large corporations to keep the information on where their cobalt has come from and the working conditions that the miners were subjected to hidden. Greater transparency is needed and will hopefully put more pressure on them to address these human rights issues. The corporations should also be collecting information surrounding their quality of life, as it relates socially, economically, and environmentally to the presence of cobalt mines in their community.
Overall, with the implementation of a system similar to the one described above, local populations will be able to have a voice and there will be an increase in local sustainability that is just and equitable for all involved parties. Creating policies that hold corporations accountable and allow workers to fight for what is right will contribute to creating a more fair-minded global economy in which corporations and local communities have equal say in what it means to be truly sustainable. Unfortunately, it is unlikely for change to happen instantly and to a great degree, it is important for consumers to continue to hold companies accountable and promote a public awareness to these conditions. Some ways to do this is through signing petitions or promoting and supporting those involved in the 2017 lawsuit. These corporations will choose money over the lives of others and it is our job as consumers to step up and say that this is wrong.