Cobalt ore deposits are limited to a few countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which controls 49% of the world's reserves, concentrated in the southeastern region of the country:
Products utilising cobalt generate substantial revenues for multinational corporations such as Google, Microsoft, Dell, Apple, Samsung, and Tesla:
Revenue in 2019 (US$ billion)
The answer, unfortunately, is very little, especially for those at the bottom of the chain – the miners who extract cobalt for a meagre wage of around $1 per day. In terms of development, the DRC ranks near the bottom:
Approximately one-fifth of cobalt mined in the DRC is extracted through artisanal mining. The estimated number of artisanal miners varies, but there are likely over 200,000 individuals involved, including approximately 40,000 children, some as young as 7 years old.
The term "artisanal" is misleading. Artisanal miners engage in manual digging without access to industrial tools, protective clothing, hard hats, facemasks to shield against toxic dust, or protective shoes. The work is dirty and dangerous.
Individual miners extract relatively small amounts of the mineral, which they sell to middlemen at local markets for a fraction of its true value. For some, the situation is dire. These individuals often fall into the clutches of local militias or powerful figures due to extreme poverty. They are forced to work long hours, frequently without pay.
One can easily attribute this ongoing situation to internal conflicts that have pitted dissident armed militias against successive governments, resulting in lawlessness, endemic corruption, and a lack of protection for the population.
It is evident that the DRC has been plagued by a multitude of problematic practices. These included the exchange of monopolies for kickbacks, embezzlement of funds from state-run companies, establishment of joint ventures with politicians as shareholders, and acceptance of unfavorable contract terms in return for kickbacks. These practices, among others, have contributed to the challenges faced by the DRC.
The emergence of global corporations investing in emerging economies was expected to fuel growth in the world's poorer countries. It was argued that the wealth they created would gradually improve the lives of the global poor, ultimately reducing poverty and inequality.
Clearly, this has not been the case. Instead, many argue that global corporations have had the following effects:
The cobalt miners in the DRC occupy the lowest rung of a long and intricate supply chain, from the miners themselves to the local market dealers and beyond. A substantial portion of cobalt from the DRC is sold by child slaves to traders and smelters, who prioritise price over human rights abuses.
The batteries eventually find their way downstream into the supply chains of consumer electronics companies, often through a complex network of subcontractors, and ultimately to global corporations like Microsoft.
Global corporations vehemently reject any blame, arguing:
But can this position be defended? Considering the enormous profits they generate, shouldn't they be doing more? It appears that these corporations are simply refusing to take responsibility for the conditions further down the supply chain.
While companies like Sony and Dell state that they condemn the use of slave labour in their supply chains, they seem unwilling to invest the necessary time and effort to ensure effective monitoring of these supply chains.
These global corporations possess immense financial power that they could leverage to influence operations throughout the supply chain, should they choose to do so. Yet, they have not taken such steps thus far.
As technology advances, the demand for minerals like cobalt in the DRC (and lithium extraction in Bolivia) is expected to continue increasing. Without a change in the perspective of large multinational companies operating in emerging economies, the situation will remain bleak for individuals like the artisanal miners in the DRC.
Perhaps the solution lies in strengthening existing laws and implementing new ones to compel top-level companies within supply chains to assume greater responsibility, thus guaranteeing respect for human rights at the bottom of the chain.
With the UK government and others aiming for full electric adoption by 2030, boycotting electric cars seems improbable, and expecting consumers to suddenly refuse the latest models of mobile phones is equally unrealistic. Ultimately, finding a viable and impactful approach to holding companies accountable and protecting human rights in the global supply chains remains a challenging task.
To find out more, listen to this podcast, featuring Siddarth Kara, author of Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. Kara is presently engaged in strategic litigation against Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla, aiming to compel these companies to be accountable for the conditions in their respective supply chains