Demand for cobalt is increasing significantly as more electric cars and other green energy solutions reach consumers. With this growth, attention has turned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where most of the world’s cobalt is produced, of which a third comes from artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). For more than 200,000 people in the DRC, informal cobalt mining is an essential lifeline. The green energy and mining industry enjoy immense benefits from DRC cobalt, and it is essential this is not happening on the back of the workers, children and entire communities. With projections pointing to a staggering 30% increase in demand for cobalt annually, it is therefore crucial to have a thorough understanding of not only the working conditions in ASM, but of how the ASM industry affects the communities linked to it.
We have known for some time that cobalt mining is linked to various human and labour rights challenges as well as incidents of child labour. In general we can observe that mining in countries with widespread poverty and weak labour standards, creates risks not only for the mine workers, but also for the communities around the mines – most of all, children. Our report confirms the extent to which working conditions and insufficient wages in ASM multiply risks for children and youth that already face the reality of poverty: bad living conditions, insufficient healthcare and education, child labour, violence against children as well as a general lack of decent job opportunities.
It’s encouraging to see that there is a growing consensus that rather than eradicating ASM, the focus needs to be on developing an industry-wide standard for responsible cobalt mining, and we hope the information in this study will further drive action towards better conditions in and around ASM. It will be crucial that all those involved – industry partners and stakeholders, the DRC government and civil society organisations – find a common understanding and take proactive, pragmatic steps to improve the situation for communities that depend on artisanal and small-scale mining.
The mining industry alone will not be able to tackle this problem; to develop effective, systemic and sustainable solutions we need strong collaborations with government and CSOs, as well as a thorough understanding of local realities gained through the participation of respective mining communities when designing interventions.
But it is equally important that the scale and complexity of the issues don’t lead us to a wait-and-see approach or to political quarrels on where to start. Rather, we all need to live up to our responsibilities and promptly find solutions, never losing sight of what is at stake: the future of hundreds of thousands of children in the DRC’s mining communities.
Ines Kaempfer CEO, The Centre for Child Rights and Business Florian Westphal CEO,
Save the Children initiated this study to shed light on the current situation of children in cobalt artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities and the opportunities for companies to improve child rights.
Cobalt is an important mineral for lithium-ion batteries used in electronic devices and electric cars and of strategic importance in pushing the “clean energy revolution”. The demand for cobalt is expected to grow four-fold by 2030. Approximately 70% of the world’s cobalt is produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), of which 15–30% of the DRC’s cobalt supply is produced by ASM (World Economic Forum 2019), which is mostly informal and illegal in nature.
There has been much negative press around ASM in recent years, which is often associated with human rights violations, poor working conditions and the worst forms of child labour.
Initially many cobalt buyers undertook “de-risking” efforts to ensure their supply chains were clear of ASM cobalt. However, the industry has generally come to the consensus that it is nearly impossible to ensure no ASM cobalt enters the more formal supply chains, and that even if their supply chains could be entirely ASM cobalt free, the reputational risk will persist. More importantly, the cobalt ASM sector is crucial to the livelihoods of up to 200,000 artisanal miners and their families (OECD 2019), and therefore, eliminating ASM is not an option in the near future. As a result, a range of government and corporate-led on-the-ground initiatives have taken off in the past few years to formalise ASM. The process of formalisation, while not yet standardised, is generally driven by a goal to create decent working conditions by improving health and safety, water and sanitation, eliminate child labour, increase productivity and income for artisanal miners, increase traceability and to legitimise the ASM operations. While there is a lack of legally binding 1 Please refer to Appendix 2 for more information about the study partners. regulations at the international level to address human rights issues in cobalt ASM in DRC, the new laws and legislations in Europe such as the likely European Commission Mandatory Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence (mHREDD) law and Germany’s supply chain due diligence act (passed in June 2021), will strengthen the regulatory framework for downstream companies sourcing cobalt from DRC.
As a result of these laws, there will be more pressure on companies to demonstrate how they manage human rights and environmental risks in their supply chains. Thus, engaging in formalising ASM and improving child rights will be an opportunity for companies to implement what will be requested under the various due diligence laws.
This study aims to understand how the recent changes and supply chain practices impact child rights risks and how actions of downstream players, such as battery producers, technology and car companies, can function as either risk multipliers or mitigators in relation to child rights. By analysing the implications of recent policies and practices of downstream players and the initial impact of the ASM formalisation efforts on child rights, the study aims to find opportunities to improve children’s rights for downstream players by actively and proactively engaging in cobalt ASM in the DRC.
The study was carried out by The Centre for Child Rights and Business (The Centre) and supported by partners such as the Impact Facility, who provided technical support and expertise throughout the study, and local implementing partners IHfRa and CARF1 , who engaged in quantitative and qualitative data collection over the course of two separate field assessments, gathering insights from 207 parent artisanal miners and 209 children through semi-structured interviews and quantitative surveys in Lualaba Province. Qualitative data was derived from in-depth assessments with village chiefs, representatives from ASM cooperatives, school principals and artisanal miners, with further insights gathered during workshops with male and female artisanal miners, school children and out-of-school children. As any study on human rights in cobalt supply chains can have wide-reaching implications for consumer brands, we also sought to gain their perspective, and thus conducted in-depth interviews with BMW, Daimler, Fairphone and Volkswagen, as well as with international NGOs with strong knowledge and ties to the DRC’s extractive industry such as Pact and The Impact Facility.
We can summarise our key findings as follows:
• Children in cobalt ASM communities face an education crisis that has been worsening in recent years and has been further aggravated by the income shocks of a cobalt price slump and interrupted and unstable supply chains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
• With the increase in school dropouts, child labour in ASM continues to be a common phenomenon.
• School fees are the main obstacle to education and a driver for child labour and unregular school attendance and dropouts. • Older children in secondary school age often engage in mining work to pay for their education, while the younger children in primary school age are forced to drop out of school.
• Children working in ASM spend long hours at work, and as a result, feel the impact of hazardous work on their health, experiencing frequent pain and discomfort in their bodies as well as small and bigger injuries at work.
• Aware of their desperate state, children in ASM communities, especially those working in ASM, generally have poor psychological health with pervasive negative emotions, and regardless of having dreams about university education, are quite pessimistic about their future career options.
• On top of children struggling to get to school and working in mines, the ASM negatively affect the health and safety of children: they are at an increased risk of accidents given the close proximity of the mines to the busy roads children walk along to fetch water, as well as the air pollution from the mines that puts children at risk of suffering from long-term health issues. Linking desktop research to our observations and comparing mines in formalisation projects to those who aren’t, we draw the following conclusions: Supply Chain Practices
• Traceability of the cobalt supply chain is improving with leading international brands mapping their supply chains to the smelters/refiner’s level according to OECD recommendations.
• Even though disengaging from ASM might reduce the risks for businesses, it will worsen the child rights risks in ASM communities, and thus is not considered a responsible sourcing approach.
• The stigmatisation of ASM by downstream brands and buyers can only discourage largescale mining (LSM) companies from meaningfully engaging with ASM.
• LSM can play a crucial role in the formalisation efforts to provide technical and machinery support to ASM and increase safety and productivity, and direct relationships between ASM and LSM/refiners can improve traceability.
• Pilot initiatives to formalise the ASM sector can only be sustainable and scaled up if ASM is acknowledged and treated as part of the supply chains of downstream companies.
• Cooperatives play an important role in formalising the ASM sector if they receive the technical and managerial support.
• Formalisation efforts can achieve a real impact on reducing child labour in the mines if supply chain practices are combined with community development initiatives to address poverty.
• Monitoring systems to remove children from the mines can effectively reduce child labour in the sector. But it is only sustainable if children have better access to education, miners increase productivity and income and have more alternative income opportunities.
Recommendations and Next Steps
After analysing the role downstream brands/ buyers can play in improving child rights in the cobalt ASM communities in the DRC, the study recommends the following interventions as opportunities to improve children’s rights:
1. Engage ASM as part of the supply chain to push for formalisation
2. Set up a functional child labour remediation system as part of ASM formalisation efforts
3. Investment in ASM communities should focus on improving access to education and reduction of school fees
4. ASM formalisation efforts should push economic partnerships between LSM and ASM to improve productivity and safety
5. LSM investment in ASM communities to improve the living conditions (infrastructure) should not only be considered as a philanthropic contribution but to be expected as part of a due diligence process
Read full report here.
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