Cobalt is everywhere. It is a silvery-blue mineral used in the rechargeable batteries that power our mobile phones, laptops and tablets, and in larger quantities, the electric vehicles that will soon dominate our roads. It is a strategic mineral in the plan to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Accelerating this switch is one of the priorities to tackle the climate crisis and industry experts forecast that electric vehicle sales will skyrocket in the next 10 years. This will require a dramatic increase in cobalt production.
The booming demand for cobalt has a dark side, however. The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s poorest nations, holds the lion’s share of the world’s cobalt reserves. In 2020, 70% of the world’s cobalt was extracted from within its borders with tens of thousands of workers labouring in large-scale industrial mines to dig up the ore. Multinational mining companies that own many of Congo’s mines, eager to demonstrate their “green” and “responsible” credentials, say they produce “clean” and “sustainable” cobalt, free from human rights abuses, and that their operations contribute to good jobs and economic opportunities.
This report, based on extensive research over two years, paints a very different picture. It shows dire conditions for many Congolese workers in the industrial mines, often characterised by widespread exploitation and labour rights abuses. Many workers do not earn a “living wage” – the minimum remuneration to afford a decent standard of living – have little or no health provision, and far too often are subjected to excessive working hours, unsafe working conditions, degrading treatment, discrimination and racism.
“We were working hard, without any breaks, for $2.5 a day. If you didn’t understand what the boss said to you, he would slap you in the face. If you had an accident, they would just fire you.” – Congolese worker
In recent years attention has mainly focused on Congo’s artisanal mining sector, partly because of the risks of child labour it creates, whereas the conditions for workers in the large-scale industrial mines have gone largely unnoticed. This report examines workers’ rights at Congo’s industrial mines where the large majority of cobalt is coming from, producing some 80% of the cobalt exported from the country (in contrast to the 20% produced in artisanal mines).
The findings presented in this report are based on detailed research over 28 months by UK-based corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide JuridicoJudiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialised in labour rights.
The research team carried out extensive field research in and around Kolwezi, a mining town where many of Congo’s cobalt and copper mines are located. It is informed by 130 interviews of workers and former workers at five mining companies, as well as interviews with subcontractors, union representatives, lawyers, Congolese local authorities, medical staff and industry experts. The research focuses on five of the world’s largest copper and cobalt mines. They are owned or operated by multinational mining companies which together produced nearly half of the global supply of cobalt in 2020: (i) Glencore’s Kamoto Copper Company (KCC), (ii) Eurasian Resources Group’s Metalkol RTR, (iii) EXECUTIVE SUMMARY THE ROAD TO RUIN? 4 China Molybdenum’s Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM), (iv) China Nonferrous Metal Mining Company (CNMC)’s Société minière de Deziwa (Somidez) of which the Congolese state company Gécamines owns 49% and, (v) Sino-congolaise des mines (Sicomines) a joint venture between Gécamines and a consortium of Chinese companies and investors.
A subcontracting model that erodes workers’ rights and provides cheap labour
At the heart of the problem of workers exploitation is the subcontracting model used by the multinational mining companies to hire their workforce. Rather than employing workers directly, the mining companies turn to subcontracting firms to provide large parts of their workforce, from miners to cleaners, to drivers, to security personnel and others. Workers and managers from subcontracting firms we interviewed said they believed companies use this model as an intentional strategy to reduce costs, limit liability for workers’ safety and prevent workers from joining unions.
Official figures show at least 26,455 workers are employed either directly or indirectly at the mines covered by our research, of which more than half (57%) are supplied by subcontractors. At some mines, it was even greater. At TFM, for example, 68% of the workforce in 2020 was employed by subcontractors; at Metalkol, it was 64%. The use of subcontractors or labour agencies is acceptable practice for short term assignments or specialist recruitment, but there is unmistakable evidence to suggest that mining companies in Congo are using subcontractors to supply staff for their core business operations on a long-term basis, often on extremely low pay.
“There will be no electric vehicle revolution without Congo’s cobalt.” – EV industry expert
Workers employed by subcontractors earn substantially less than those hired directly by the mining companies and most (63%) do not earn the living wage of $402 per month, the minimum remuneration to afford a decent standard of living. Many earn substantially less.
Workers described being treated as second-class citizens, with those directly employed earning pay and benefits far superior to their own low pay, with the principle of equal pay for equal work routinely violated. Many said they were in despair, unable to pull themselves or their families out of poverty.
Racism, discrimination and degrading treatment
Industry experts report that a sizeable 70% of Congo’s mining sector is now backed by Chinese investment. This increased Chinese activity has come alongside reports of tensions between Chinese and Congolese workers. Not all of this has been one-sided: Chinese workers have described facing serious hostility from the Congolese. Yet even with the difficulties faced by Chinese expatriates, we have found that their working conditions are distinctly superior to those of Congolese workers.
At Sicomines, Somidez, TFM, and their respective subcontractors, as well as at Metalkol’s subcontractors, workers reported either experiencing or witnessing racism and discrimination almost daily. This was expressed through physical violence and verbal abuse. Workers described a “colonial era” level of discrimination – being kicked, slapped, beaten with sticks, insulted, shouted at, or sometimes pulled around by their ear, when they were not able to understand instructions in Mandarin, made errors or refused to undertake dangerous tasks. In most cases, those who countered this treatment were immediately dismissed without pay.
Inadequate safety and workers’ health cover
Congolese law requires employers to cover the healthcare costs of workers employed on permanent and fixed-term contracts, and of their dependent family members. It is a significant benefit of full-time work, and one that Congolese workers prize. But most subcontractors provide only partially subsidised healthcare, sometimes as little as $10 per worker per month, far too low to enable health clinics to provide a decent standard of care. Some subcontractors provide no healthcare at all. RAID and CAJJ interviewed doctors and hospital managers who told us they regularly see chronic health problems and disabilities caused by exposure to toxic products and poor working conditions. We found that some mining companies and subcontractors are aware of these risks, but fail to provide fair compensation or to change their practices.
These issues are linked to significant safety breaches on mine sites. Workers hired by subcontractors at Metalkol, Sicomines, and TFM told us that they are not given personal protective equipment or if they are, it is poor quality. Others explained they are put in highly dangerous situations – such as being pushed to climb scaffolding at a faster pace, sometimes without a safety harness – but do not complain for fear of losing their job.
What is the Congolese government doing?
The Congolese government has the primary responsibility to ensure its labour laws are respected. But Congo’s Labour Inspectorate, an administrative service which monitors the implementation of domestic labour regulation, is severely underfunded and understaffed. In 2021, there were only two Labour Inspectors assigned to the Kolwezi area with limited ability to carry out their work. They are sometimes refused entry to the mine sites and, even if they are granted entry, receive few complaints from workers who are too fearful of losing their jobs to report any concerns. Such ineffective enforcement has created a largely unregulated work environment.
Responses from the mining companies
In recent years, mining companies have sought to better align with societal values. The companies featured in our report have developed internal human rights standards, joined industry initiatives for more ethical mining, or made public commitments to promote and protect the rights of their workers. Although these commitments are much needed, the degree to which they are translated into practice is often unclear.
RAID and CAJJ wrote to the five mining companies to share our research findings and to seek responses to a detailed list of questions. We received responses from four companies: KCC, Metalkol, Sicomines and TFM. One of the companies, Somidez, did not respond despite repeated attempts to contact them.
Despite emphasising the positive measures in place for their employees, the mining companies provided significantly less support to workers hired via subcontractors. Only Glencore, the owner of KCC, said it had acted to suspend some of its subcontractors due to safety or non-performance. None of the other companies reported taking such action.
The letters and the full responses from the companies can be found on RAID’s website.
Is your electric vehicle “clean”?
Using publicly available information, we traced the cobalt from the industrial cobalt mines covered in this report through the supply chain to electric vehicle and electronics manufacturers such as Tesla, Renault, General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota, Samsung SDI, Panasonic and Apple, among others. These consumer-facing companies play an important role in ensuring that the cobalt (as well as other minerals and raw materials) used in their products is not tainted by human rights abuses and the exploitation of workers. There is increasing pressure from consumers and investors for them to act, as is evident from the growing trend in environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing.
In response to such pressure, industry initiatives that seek to demonstrate that cobalt and other critical minerals are clean have mushroomed in recent years. Yet, none of these initiatives are binding on companies and all rely on voluntary adherence. In addition, the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas (OECD Guidance), a key standard for many mining companies operating in Congo, focuses on a narrow set of issues such as child labour, and does not address broader labour rights issues covered in this report. This gap means due diligence initiatives and industry schemes, which rely on the OECD Guidance, do not adequately cover labour rights or worker exploitation at all.
The way forward
Workers’ rights issues in cobalt mining require industry and governmental action. Without strong legal frameworks, industry initiatives create no real incentives or accountability along the cobalt supply chain. Mandatory human rights due diligence regulation – requiring companies to address the adverse impacts of their operations on human rights and the environment – would be a significant step in the right direction. As an immediate short-term measure, companies need to extend checks beyond the narrow OECD Guidance to cover broader ESG concerns such as workers’ rights.
We recognise that tackling the climate crisis is a global priority and that electric vehicles are considered key to the clean energy transition. Yet, we also believe this must come together with sourcing the minerals in a responsible way. Electric vehicles should not be built on the backs of exploited Congolese workers. The urgency of the climate crisis demands action from both industry and governments that sacrifice neither people nor the planet. Producing “ethical” batteries free from workers’ exploitation, human rights abuses and environmental harm, which contributes to a just transition and does not repeat the injustice of the fossil fuel based economy, is vital. By bearing witness to labour rights concerns at the cobalt mines in Congo, we hope this report can contribute to finding a bold way forward.
1. Cobalt is considered an essential mineral for the transition to a low carbon economy required to tackle the climate crisis. It is used in lithium-ion (rechargeable) batteries for the anticipated electric vehicle boom.
2. Over 70% of the world’s cobalt was mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2020. It is mostly produced by large scale industrial mines which account for 80% of Congo’s cobalt exports (20% is from artisanal miners).
3. Multinational mining companies who mine the ore say their cobalt is “clean” and free from human rights abuses. But research at five of the biggest cobalt mines exposes widespread labour exploitation and workers’ rights abuses.
4. Workers said they are subjected to excessive working hours, degrading treatment, violence discrimination, racism, unsafe working conditions and a disregard for even basic health provision. They described being kicked, slapped, beaten with sticks, insulted, shouted at, or pulled around by their ears.
5. The use of subcontractors to hire the workforce is at the heart of the problem. As much as 57% of the 26,455 workers across the five mines are hired through subcontractors rather than being directly employed by the mining companies.
6. Many workers do not earn the living wage of $402 a month, the minimum remuneration to afford a decent standard of living. About 63% of those we interviewed hired through subcontractors earn extremely low wages, often much less than the living wage and expressed despair that that they were unable to pull themselves out of poverty.
7. Those we interviewed said they believed multinational mining companies used subcontractors deliberately to reduce labour costs and limit their legal responsibilities.
8. Congolese labour inspectors appear unable to address the widespread abuses. The Kolwezi area, where Congo’s largest mines are located, has only two inspectors with few resources.
9. Congo’s cobalt is predominantly destined for the world’s automotive companies. These companies have a role to play in ensuring the minerals they use are responsibly sourced in conditions that respect workers’ rights.
10. Industry initiatives seeking to demonstrate that cobalt and other critical minerals are “clean” have mushroomed in recent years. None are binding on companies and many do not cover workers’ exploitation or a broad range of labour rights. Laws that require mandatory human rights due diligence would help.
11. Electric vehicles should not be built on the backs of exploited Congolese workers. The urgency of the climate crisis demands bold action from both industry and governments that sacrifice neither people nor the planet. Producing “ethical” batteries free from workers’ exploitation, human rights abuses and environmental harm is vital for a just transition.
For mining companies:
• Hire the majority of your Congolese workforce directly and limit outsourcing to workers with specialised skills for a limited period of time. Halt practices that rotate workers between subcontracting companies and provide full-time jobs to those who have had two consecutive contracts, as stipulated by Congolese law.
• Pay a living wage and publicly commit to paying at or above the living wage for all workers at your Congolese operations, whether direct or indirect hires.
• Review all contracts with subcontractors who provide workers to your operations to ensure they set remuneration rates at or above the living wage, provide legal benefits that meet or exceed Congolese labour law (free healthcare, paid leave, severance pay, etc.), promote freedom of association, and abide strictly by legal working hours and time off. End contracts with any who do not meet these standards.
• Conduct immediate, credible and transparent investigations into allegations of physical violence, racism and discrimination outlined in this report which relate to your mine, and take appropriate action against any employees or subcontractors who may have been responsible.
• Take active and public steps to ensure that all workers, including temporary and daily workers, are treated equally and without discrimination. This includes access to the same services, same facilities, same career progression and same treatment for all workers irrespective of their status, gender or origin. Amend company policies if needed.
• Ensure all workers, whether directly or indirectly hired, are provided with free healthcare for them and their dependent family members as per Congolese law. Review caps set on monthly allocations to health providers to ensure this does not, in practice, limit workers legal access to adequate healthcare.
• Ensure that all internal policies and procedures cover the protection of your entire workforce, those hired directly or indirectly. Such policies should be aligned with international standards and domestic regulation, and go over and above compliance with these when they do not protect workers adequately.
• Involve workers (direct and indirect hires) at all stages of your human rights due diligence processes. This includes, among others, ensuring that workers are aware and engaged in the protection of their rights, and contribute to risk assessments, monitoring of your labour rights performance, and the operation of grievance mechanisms. Do not use social auditing as a proxy for your own due diligence responsibilities.
• Review all health and safety standards on mine sites, including by subcontractors, ensure all direct and indirectly hired workers have appropriate PPE, and provide them with regular, comprehensive training about health and safety risks related to their employment.
• Address the gap in industry standards in relation to labour rights abuses as identified in this report. Apply relevant international standards on labour rights, such as those set out in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and ensure they cover the entire workforce (direct and indirect hires).
• Support the call for mandatory human rights due diligence laws (see below).
For companies down the supply chain:
• Use all available means, as part of your leverage, to press suppliers and the companies who operate industrial cobalt mines in Congo to halt the exploitation of workers and to pay the living wage and decent benefits. If your leverage is insufficient to remedy the situation, end your contractual relationship with the supplier.
• Map your supply chain all the way to the cobalt mine and make it publicly available. Detail the due diligence measures you have in place to ensure these suppliers do not contribute to the exploitation of Congolese workers.
• Immediately review your due diligence processes to ensure the broad range of workers’ rights concerns, including those identified in this report, are addressed in a systematic and comprehensive manner in your suppliers’ operations, in line with international standards and domestic regulation. If not, urgently amend the process.
• Apply industry standards on responsible sourcing that comprehensively address human rights and workers’ rights concerns, and go beyond child labour and forced labour in artisanal cobalt mining. Urge industry standard-setting organisations to address labour rights in a comprehensive manner and to include workers’ rights issues into assurance and auditing schemes.
• Regularly engage with workers, trade unions, communities, international and local civil society, and consumers to establish clearly their expectations and your responsibilities.
• Apply best practices from other industries in relation to identifying workers’ rights abuses in supply chains, and implement them in your operations.
• Support and join the call for mandatory human rights due diligence laws. Use your influence to push for laws that protect all human rights, workers’ rights and environment standards relevant to your industry. Implement relevant due diligence laws and provide remedy to affected workers in a substantive manner, rather than as a “tick-the-box’ exercise.
For the Congolese government:
• Urgently invest funds and resources for labour inspection to ensure more effective monitoring of the labour practices of mining companies and their subcontractors on the state territory.
• Establish strong enforcement and sanction mechanisms for non-compliant companies.
• Publicly call on mining companies to abide by Congo’s labour laws and condition renewal of mining permits and contracts on such adherence.
For global states:
• Clean up mineral supply chains and ensure there is responsible sourcing of cobalt and other minerals needed for batteries in electric vehicles to deliver a just transition to a low-carbon economy.
• Introduce legally binding regulations to protect human rights and workers’ rights such as through mandatory human rights due diligence laws that require companies to take action to prevent human rights abuses and environmental harm from their global operations, supply and value chains. Provide for effective enforcement and remedy where companies infringe or otherwise fail to prevent adverse impacts on human rights and the rights of workers, including through civil action.
“We were working hard, without any breaks, for $2.5 a day. If you didn’t understand what the boss said to you, he would slap you in the face. If you had an accident, they would just fire you.” – Andre, Congolese worker at an industrial cobalt mine in DR Congo
Electric vehicle sales are expected to skyrocket over the next decade as the world shifts from fossil fuels to greener technologies. Cobalt is critical to this energy transition. It’s a key mineral used in rechargeable batteries that will power the transformation. But for André,** as for tens of thousands of workers at large industrial mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the promise of better jobs and a better life has not become a reality.
Congo holds the lion’s share of the world’s cobalt. In 2020, the country contributed 70% of global cobalt production, as further explained in section 4 which sets out the context. Industry experts say there will be no electric vehicle revolution without Congo’s cobalt.
This report looks at workers’ rights at five large-scale industrial cobalt mines in Congo’s copper and cobalt belt in the south of the country. Based on extensive research by UK-based corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialized in labour rights, this report exposes the widespread exploitation of workers and abuses of their rights at some of the world’s largest copper and cobalt mines.
At the heart of the problem is the subcontracting model used by the multinational companies to hire their workforce. The majority of Congolese workers at the mines are not hired directly by the companies but instead are hired indirectly via subcontracting companies or labour agencies. We found that workers in these jobs have significantly lower wages, minimal or no benefits, and precarious job security. Many of those we interviewed did not even earn a ‘living’ wage, the minimum amount for a decent living, and were unable to pull themselves out of poverty. The workers at some of the mines, were subjected to excessive working hours, degrading treatment, discrimination, racism, unsafe working conditions and a disregard for even basic health provision. More details on the abuses they suffered can be found in section 6, which constitutes the core of this report.
While in the past few years its artisanal mining that has garnered attention across industries, in part because of the risks of child labour it creates, the impacts of industrial cobalt mining on workers have gone unnoticed. The mining industry, as part of an expanding strategy to instil confidence in their operations, has contributed to the dominant narrative that industrial cobalt mining in Congo is “clean”, “sustainable” and free from the human rights abuses that characterise artisanal mining. RAID and CAJJ’s research depicts a different reality in which Congolese workers’ lives, health and dignity appear to be put on the line in pursuit of profits. * Pseudonym; all real names have been replaced.
The five mines featured in this report are operated, respectively, by five mining companies, Kamoto Copper Company, Metalkol, Sino-congolaise des mines (Sicomines), Société minière de Deziwa (Somidez) and Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM). Further information on each of these mines and their parent companies is set out below.
In order to provide a balanced report, RAID and CAJJ wrote to the five mining companies and their parent companies to share our findings and to give them the opportunity to answer a detailed list of questions about their corporate practices. The responses from four of these companies are outlined in section 8. Their full answers can be found on RAID’s website. One of the companies, Somidez, did not respond despite repeated attempts by RAID and CAJJ.
The company responses must be understood as part of an overarching landscape on international business and human rights standards and a growing plethora of industry standards seeking to promote their ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’ credentials, especially in light of the explosion of environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. The most widely accepted standard is the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which sets expectations for states and companies for protecting and respecting human rights in corporate activities, including through supply chains. As set out in section 9, these expectations are to be implemented through a process of human rights due diligence. We traced the cobalt supply chain all the way to the consumer-facing companies who rely upon batteries to power their products, such as Tesla, Renault, and Toyota. How have they responded to the findings and what role can they play in ending these abuses?
We found that the international framework as it stands today, which is voluntary and instils no legal responsibility on companies, is failing to identify and prevent the exploitation of Congolese workers and the violation of their rights. It raises serious questions. What purpose does this framework, and ESG investing, serve and in whose interests?
We need clean energy to tackle climate change, but we cannot turn away from the exploitation of workers and labour rights abuses that are feeding this transition. This report contributes to exposing the workers’ rights abuses at the starting point, where the cobalt comes out of the ground. We hope it will also contribute to finding a solution.
Read full report here.
Read more about RAID here.