Child exploitation in the mining and extractive industries in the Democratic Republic of Congo is just the tip of the iceberg in the exploitation of the DRC’s natural resources and has led to corruption, poverty and human rights abuses, leaving the DRC one of the world’s poorest nations, despite the high demand for its natural resources.
Professor Lee Marler, co-founder and Director at the South African Regional Centre of Excellence (SARCOE) said, “The exploitation of children is a clear human rights violation, and those responsible must be brought to account. Too little is being done by Western companies at the top of the supply chain to deal with exploitation, human rights violations and corruption in mining operations, and this must change if the DRC is to benefit from its own natural resources.”
Prof. Marler continued, “It is simply not acceptable that tech companies continue to buy products like rechargeable batteries without full traceability right back to the source of the raw materials, guaranteeing the ethical treatment of people and nations.”
In 2007 China and DRC signed the “Infrastructure for Minerals” deal worth $6 billion.
Chinese lenders promised to build critical infrastructure in exchange for profits from the Sicomines copper and cobalt mines. It was considered high risk at the time due to the high level of debt taken on by DRC, and the fact that the entire country’s GDP was just $14.5 billion. This project, along with numerous other Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects has experienced lengthy delays.
There have been accusations that money has been diverted from this project, dubbed the “deal of the century” into the pockets of Chinese agents and former President Joseph Kabila and his family.
The DRC is rich in cobalt, copper, gold, coltan and diamonds. This wealth is extracted by a local workforce, of which approximately 40,000 are thought to be children, yet the nation doesn’t enjoy the wealth that should come with such valuable, high demand resources.
70% of the world’s cobalt mining takes place in the DRC. Only 20% of cobalt mining is accounted for by small, artisanal miners, with the rest accounted for by foreign firms. Over 70% of mines in the DRC are now Chinese owned. The Chinese rechargeable battery industry accounts for around 60% of global demand.
Demand for mobile and other tech products in the West has fueled increasing demand for cobalt and other minerals and metals in the DRC, leading to the establishment of Cobalt for Development, established by global big-tech companies including Samsung Electronics, BASF and BMW Group, and the Cobalt Alliance which counts Tesla among its members.
These organisations aim to support artisanal small scale mining, making it more sustainable by introducing ethical and safer practices for miners. But with 70% of mines under Chinese control, and the removal of the wealth generated through mining taken out of the DRC, the activities of these organisations are unlikely to address the real issues.
Western tech companies must address the activities of foreign companies operating in the DRC, most notably Chinese firms, and put in palace measures that require the highest expectations for ethical treatment of foreign nations and trading partners, guarantees for the proper application of International Human Rights Laws, and fair trade.
Professor Lee Marler said, “There is no place in the global supply chain for corruption, human rights violations or the plundering of a nation’s assets. Tech companies and all parties in the global supply chain must step up and take responsibility for change.”