Written by Anna S. Kordesch
In the cobalt-abundant regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a grim reality hides beneath the earth’s surface. Children, some as young as six, labour in hazardous mines, extracting a mineral vital to the global technological advancement—cobalt. This essential element, used in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries for devices like smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles, exacts a heavy toll not only on the youthful miners but also on their aspirations for education, which are left in ruins.
This article delves into the distressing ordeals of children working in the cobalt mining sector and the significant repercussions it exerts on their educational prospects. By scrutinising the diverse elements that sustain this cycle of exploitation, the aim is to uncover the systemic challenges eroding the prospects of an entire generation in DRC.
Although education represents the promise of a more hopeful future, it remains an elusive
aspiration for many children trapped in cobalt mines. It is crucial to delve into the complex network of elements that deprive these young individuals of the chance to receive an education, develop, and escape the relentless grip of poverty. This text explores the limitations in access to schools, insufficient educational infrastructure, and the economic burdens that compel children to work in the mines. By doing so, it scrutinises how these interrelated difficulties perpetuate a cycle of illiteracy, effectively stripping an entire generation of their potential.
This article serves as a strong call, calling upon governments, corporations, and civil society to confront the entrenched problems that uphold the exploitation of children in cobalt mines. Through our efforts to shed light on the severe impact on education, we aim to spark substantive conversations and motivate tangible actions aimed at protecting the rights and prospects of these at-risk children.
The Importance of Cobalt for the World Market
Cobalt (Co) is a global metal with widespread applications in commercial, industrial, and military sectors. Its primary and essential use is in the electrodes of rechargeable batteries. Cobalt is a crucial component for many of today’s everyday devices, including smartphones, laptops, tablets, and various other electronic gadgets. Moreover, it plays a vital role in renewable energy technologies, being used in wind turbines and solar panels i.
Southern Congo is situated above an estimated 3.4 million metric tons of cobalt, representing over half of the world’s known supply. Many Congolese, including children, have taken
employment in the industrial mines in this region. The vast cobalt reserves highlight that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will likely remain the primary source meeting the increasing global demand for cobalt in lithium-ion batteries. DRC’s cobalt mine production has experienced almost constant growth, going from 11,000 mines in 2000 to 98,000 in 2020. This remarkable increase is closely linked to the world’s escalating need for this metal. While the DRC is home to valuable minerals such as cobalt, copper, coltan, and gold, it is also one of the world’s most impoverished nations, grappling with issues of poverty and humanitarian crises that afflict its population ii.
Small-scale mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) engages individuals of all age groups, including children, who are compelled to labour under challenging and unfavourable conditions. Among the 255,000 Congolese involved in cobalt mining, 40,000 are children, with some as young as six years old. Most of them earn less than $2 per day, primarily relying on their hands as their primary tools for work iii.
The Dangers of Cobalt Mining
Unfortunately, children are indeed involved in artisanal mining. The youngest children often start by accompanying their mothers to the mines, while older ones take care of their younger siblings and, over time, become directly involved in the mining activities. The prevailing perception in developed countries is that child labour is a practice to be unequivocally condemned, representing one of the worst forms of exploitation.
In addition to the environmental toll of cobalt mining activities, there is a significant human cost associated with it. For adults working in these mines, there’s a heightened risk of injury or even death. This peril stems from the lack of basic protective equipment, such as hard hats and vests, as miners often work barefoot and use their hands to extract ores. Furthermore, in a 2016 report by Amnesty International, it was revealed that many mines are constructed in unsafe ways, subjecting workers to life-threatening situations in their pursuit of cobalt. Numerous miners have lost their lives or suffered severe injuries due to incidents like tunnel or pit collapses, underground fires, and suffocation. The risks of accidents resulting from improperly constructed excavations and mines can lead to fatalities from suffocation, asphyxiation, or drowning.
Children, in particular, are exposed to this inhumane working environment, living in constant fear for their lives as they strive to earn money to support their families. Child labor is a grave issue in the DRC, where children not only work in an unsafe environment but also face physical abuse, sexual exploitation and are exposed to drug use.
Environmental factors also pose significant risks in cobalt mining, including mosquito-borne illnesses linked to unintended water pooling in placer mining areas or diarrheal diseases caused by poor sanitation practices. These health concerns can be exacerbated by the remote locations of the mines and the absence of medical services, making timely treatment often unavailable.
Where does Education Fit In?
In addition to the clear violations of human rights and the life-threatening conditions that children in the DRC face due to their labour, their right to education is profoundly impacted. While the Congolese government introduced the DRC Child Protection Code in 2009, which mandates “free and compulsory primary education,” the lack of adequate government funding places the burden of covering non-tuition fees, including teacher salaries and uniform costs, on parents. Parents are required to pay between 10,000 and 30,000 Congolese Francs ($10-30) per month, an expense that many cannot afford. This financial barrier further hinders these children’s access to education. While parents may aspire to provide their children with access to formal education, economic constraints frequently force them to withhold this educational opportunity in the interest of ensuring the family’s financial viability iv.
Kabedi is a 12-year-old girl in the DRC who has returned to school after three hard years of working in an artisanal copper and cobalt mine. She explains, “When I was 9, I started working in the mine after my father died to help my mother.” Kabedi toiled from morning to night, seven days a week, collecting, crushing, and transporting copper and cobalt ores. Despite her efforts, at the end of the day, Kabedi would return home exhausted with an average of 5,000 Congolese Francs (around $2.5) in her pocket. This starkly illustrates that while these children work in cobalt mines out of sheer necessity, the income they earn is still insufficient to cover their basic needs and education costs v.
Furthermore, the gruelling work hours these children endure highlight that this kind of life is fundamentally incompatible with the continuity of education. In the DRC, the average number of years of education completed by young adults is less than four. Data reveals that only about 18% of the total population manages to attain the highest education level, which is six years of schooling. Many children have to forsake their education to bring food to the table at the end of the day. This results in a self-perpetuating cycle in which, once caught, it becomes exceedingly challenging to extricate oneself from and consequently pursue an education vi.
Access to education plays a pivotal role in significantly reducing vulnerability to child slavery and can serve as a means to lift children out of poverty. Therefore, safeguarding the availability of education is a crucial element in preventing child slavery and mitigating vulnerability to exploitative labour and slavery in adulthood.
Solutions to address mining injustices can involve various stakeholders. An example of such
efforts is the Fund for the Prevention of Child Labor in Mining Communities, a collaboration between UNICEF and the Global Battery Alliance. Through this initiative, UNICEF aims to support the school reintegration of 500 children who have left mining work. While international organisations are playing their part in upholding children’s right to quality education, jeopardised by harsh physical labour, civil society is raising awareness through the hashtag #NoCongoNoPhone to combat the cobalt supply chain that fosters child labour. A third key actor, the government in the DRC, is working with the Enterprise Generale du Cobalt to gain control over the artisanal cobalt mining sector, with the aim of curbing the illegal use of children as forced labour. These collective efforts from various actors are essential in addressing the complex issues surrounding child labour in cobalt mining vii.
Indeed, this collective action involving a multitude of actors is essential to effectively combat this illegal employment, which deprives countless children of a meaningful future that hinges on their right to quality education. Society must become aware of the dark realities occurring behind the everyday use of these common devices. It is only through such global awareness that children in the DRC can hope for a chance to one day lead age-appropriate lives, free from the burden of child labour in the cobalt mines.
Gulley, A. L. (2022). One hundred years of cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Resources Policy, 79, 103007. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2022.103007
The DRC mining industry: Child labour and formalisation of small-scale mining. Wilson Center. (n.d.). https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/drc-mining-industry-child-labor-and-formalization-small-scale-mining
Alshantti, O. (2023, March 15). Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: The human and environmental costs of the transition to Green Technology. Spheres of Influence. https://spheresofinfluence.ca/coblat-mining-drc-green-technology/
From mine to school. UNICEF. (2021, May 15). https://www.unicef.org/drcongo/en/stories/mine-school
Democratic Republic of Congo – World Bank. (n.d.). https://databankfiles.worldbank.org/public/ddpext_download/hci/HCI_2pager_COD.pdf
Philipp, J. (2021, November 5). The effects of cobalt mining in the DRC. The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/cobalt-mining-in-the-drc/
i The DRC Mining Industry: Child labor and Formalization of Small-Scale Mining. (n.d.). Wilson Center. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/drc-mining-industry-child-labor-and-formalization-small-scale-mining
ii Gulley, A. L. (2022). One hundred years of cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Resources Policy, 79, 103007. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2022.103007
iii The DRC mining industry: Child labour and formalisation of small-scale mining. Wilson Center. (n.d.). https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/drc-mining-industry-child-labor-and-formalization-small-scale-mining
iv Alshantti, O. (2023, March 15). Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: The human and environmental costs of the transition to Green Technology. Spheres of Influence. https://spheresofinfluence.ca/coblat-mining-drc-green-technology/
v From mine to school. UNICEF. (2021, May 15). https://www.unicef.org/drcongo/en/stories/mine-school
vi Democratic Republic of Congo – World Bank. (n.d.). https://databankfiles.worldbank.org/public/ddpext_download/hci/HCI_2pager_COD.pdf
vii Philipp, J. (2021, November 5). The effects of cobalt mining in the DRC. The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/cobalt-mining-in-the-drc/