Human Rights and Green Revolution: Preventing Child Labor and Wage Discrimination in Cobalt Mining
Updated: Mar 26
Contributor: Laura Han (Duke University)
Source: "The Human and Environmental Cost of the Blue Gold of our Energy Transitions"
If coal and steel powered the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution, then cobalt drives the twenty-first century’s Green Revolution. Cobalt accounts for 55% of lithium-ion batteries, critical for storing energy generated through renewable sources . The World Bank projects that global demand for cobalt will increase 585% by 2050 .
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa, longstanding socioeconomic and political problems have converged to render cobalt mining extremely unethical. The southern region supplies around 70% of the total global demand for cobalt and contains more than 50% of the world’s total cobalt deposits. However, European colonial exploitation, violent ethnic conflicts, and kleptocratic regimes have fueled endemic poverty . According to the World Bank in 2021, 73% of the Congolese population, 60 million people, live below the international poverty rate of $1.90 a day . The ecological and human destruction wrought in the Democratic Republic of Congo by cobalt constructs a modern-day wasteland.
Cobalt mining institutionalizes human exploitation, dehumanization, and the cycle of poverty. Pierre, a cobalt miner employed under China Molybdenum (the Chinese hold a virtual monopoly over the cobalt trade), describes how he made just $3.50 a day. He often skipped lunch, two bread rolls, and a carton of juice, to make an extra 20 cents; for reference, in 2021, one pound of cobalt sold for more than $20 [5, 6]. Due to lack of protective equipment, workers routinely experience diseases like dermatitis and tuberculosis, pushing them deeper into poverty while politicians and executives enrich themselves. Workers also experience racism from their managers: several workers allege wage discrimination; one worker recalls being “slapped across the face four times” while another overheard a supervisor saying “[t]hese people, they don’t really think” . This racism reduces Congolese miners into replaceable, profit-making tools rather than human beings deserving of dignity.
The dire poverty in the DRC, coupled with the high demand for cobalt, creates a landscape of death and destruction. Despite being a lifeline for millions and the source of 15 to 30% of DRC cobalt, informal miners, called creuseurs, lack protective equipment and technical expertise . In December 2014, a tunnel collapse killed fifteen people. After the collapse, new creuseurs began digging in the same tunnel, illustrating profound desensitization to death. In June 2019, a tunnel collapse killed more than 40 people .
Cobalt mining also adversely affects women and children, highlighting the moral corruption cobalt mining perpetuates. An estimated 40,000 children work in the DRC’s mines, many of them in small-scale cobalt mining. Amnesty International has traced cobalt mined through child labor to sixteen multinational companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and Tesla . Children as young as three work in the mines; they carry ore for adult creuseurs or join roaming bands of teenagers who dig or steal ore to sell. Creuseurs drug the children to dull their hunger and starve them if they do not collect enough cobalt; soldiers dispatched by the government beat the children for trespassing on company mines and extort them for money. Moreover, the sex trade, inherently dehumanizing and objectifying, thrive around cobalt mines, and superstition has caused the rape and homicide of countless young girls. Indeed, cobalt mining’s impacts extend to the womb: a 2020 medical study found that women in the cobalt region “had metal concentrations that are among the highest ever reported for pregnant women.” The women who wash these ores have direct contact with radioactive elements occurring naturally in the cobalt ore and those used during the mining process. Exposure to these ores by either parent dramatically increases the risk of stillbirth or birth defects .
Promising reforms like the institutionalization of informal mining, better regulation of working conditions and child labor, and the use of blockchain to provide supply chain transparency are in progress [12, 13]. However, it remains to be seen whether these reforms can rectify the physical and moral wasteland created by cobalt mining.
As with all op-eds published by ECC Inclusion Advocate, this article reflects the opinions of its author.
 Garside, M. “Cobalt Composition of Lithium-Ion Batteries 2017.” Statista, January 20, 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/655948/composition-share-of-cobalt-in-lithium-ion-battery-cathodes/.
[2, 5, 7] Pattisson, Pete. “'Like Slave and Master': DRC Miners Toil for 30p an Hour to Fuel Electric Cars.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, November 8, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/nov/08/cobalt-drc-miners-toil-for-30p-an-hour-to-fuel-electric-cars.
[3, 8, 12] Campbell, John. “Why Cobalt Mining in the DRC Needs Urgent Attention.” Council on Foreign Relations, October 29, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/blog/why-cobalt-mining-drc-needs-urgent-attention.
 “Overview.” World Bank in DRC. World Bank, April 2, 2021. https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/drc/overview#1.
 “Cobalt Price Chart (USD / Pound) for the Last Available Years.” Daily Metal Prices. Accessed January 18, 2022. https://www.dailymetalprice.com/metalpricecharts.php?c=co&u=lb&d=0.
[9, 11] Niarchos, Nicolas. “The Dark Side of Congo's Cobalt Rush.” The New Yorker, May 24, 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/05/31/the-dark-side-of-congos-cobalt-rush.
 Kelly, Annie. “Children as Young as Seven Mining Cobalt Used in Smartphones, Says Amnesty.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, January 18, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/jan/19/children-as-young-as-seven-mining-cobalt-for-use-in-smartphones-says-amnesty.
 Chege, Kimani. “IBM and Ford Lead Blockchain Scheme to Stop Congo's Bleeding Cobalt.” The Exchange, January 19, 2019. https://theexchange.africa/industry-and-trade/extractive-and-energy/ibm-and-ford-lead-blockchain-scheme-to-stop-congos-bleeding-cobalt/.