Smartphones powered by child labour in Congo

Some of the world’s biggest tech companies like Apple and Tesla are at the centre of the on-going crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over the years humanitarians have tried to bring the problem of child labour in Congo to the world’s attention where cobalt is mined to manufacture lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones and other electronics.

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The cobalt mining is done through child labour in Congo by children miners some as young as six years old. It is estimated that there are at least 35,000 children mining in these cobalt mines. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces about 70% of the world’s cobalt that is needed to power smartphones and electric cars whose demand is growing in Western countries.

Child labour in Congo source of lithium-ion batteries

The demand for electric cars has grown as the world is fast embracing technology and finding solutions to make life easier. One of the biggest issues today is global warming and one of the solutions for this is the shift to electric cars that don’t emit harmful gases. However, the cobalt needed for these cars is majorly mined in Congo.

Cobalt is used to build rechargeable lithium-ion batteries which are lighter and pack more energy than conventional lead-acid batteries. Li-Ion batteries provide portable electricity, powering electronic gadgets such as mobile phones, laptops and tablets. Li-Ion batteries are also used to supply energy to medical equipment, electric vehicles and power tools.

Market prices for cobalt have spiked to 300% in recent years however this money barely reaches these miners. Major electronic and automobile brands continue to state that they are not aware of these appalling working conditions and hence no one is held accountable for the child labour in Congo cobalt mines.

There have been recommendations by human rights activists asking that these tech companies follow up on their supply chains as many of them claim that they have strong policies against child labour. The human rights activists ask that they exercise the same effort into creating better working conditions for the cobalt miners in Congo who are exposed to risks like injuries and death.

Child labour in Congo affects a large proportion of Congolese children with UNICEF reporting at least 23% of Congolese children involved in child labour between 2009-2015 (UNICEF, 2020). The International Labour Organisation reported according to a survey that around 85% of children in rural, indigenous regions are at work for very low wages.

In 2019, tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Tesla, and Dell were charged for aiding the mining companies in Congo that exploited children for their labour who worked in dangerous conditions that eventually led to injuries and death. The companies were charged by families that claimed their children worked illegally for certain mining companies. The tech companies buy battery-grade cobalt from mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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