Since the first scramble of Africa to the present day, the Congolese working class and the poor have endured every kind of horror, repression, exploitation, and oppression within the hands of imperialist looting and barbarism. The labour coercion during the rubber regime under King Leopold II of Belgium has undermined long-run development in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The King’s rule was so bloody and brutal, it was an exploitative regime that relied on forced labour to cultivate and trade rubber, ivory, and minerals.
The history of Congo is a litany of theft and conflicts. From the traffic of slaves to the brutal Belgian colonisation, to the cold war manipulation and therefore the wars that followed, those who have paid the price, and suffered the most are the working class and the poor. The country has supplied slaves for sugarcane plantations, rubber for the pneumatic tire, uranium for the atomic bomb used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to coltan for mobile devices, and today cobalt for lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt is important in making rechargeable lithium batteries utilised in many products sold by the Tech and Automobile companies. In short, the mineral wealth of Congo has powered the western world economies for hundreds of years.
For quite a decade now, the global digital revolution has been enabled by places like Kapata, Kasulo, Kamilombwe, Mutoshi cobalt mines, to say the few. The world’s largest mining companies get their supply from artisanal small-scale miners (ASM) who dig copper and cobalt out of the earth by hand with little or no safety protection. Cobalt is very important for carmakers and people within the global supply chain as they look to fulfil a rapid increase in demand for electric vehicles and batteries. Global warming is threatening our planet, and a rapid and dramatic reduction in carbon emissions is crucial. Therefore, battery-powered vehicles are the foremost promising alternative but for the foreseeable future, they rely on cobalt, a mineral found primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo where child labor and unsafe mining conditions are common and order of the day.
The Tech and electric automobile companies in the world have brought on the working class and poor people the most recent wave of cruel repression, exploitation and oppression fuelled by greed, corruption, profit maximisation, and access to cheap raw material. As a result, children are killed in tunnel collapses or losing limbs, and suffering from other horrific injuries caused by mining accidents. This is the high cost of cobalt mining that the children are paying when digging this precious mineral out of the earth. Child labour may be a highly complex problem in the country because it is intertwined with a higher level of poverty, inequality, a scarcity of social services, alternative employment, and education.
Extreme poverty implies that working in the mines is a necessity for some children, who are left with no choice but to work in mines without supervision. Other children work in the mines to get money to buy foods, clothes, look after their families and pay for their school fees. With no mask or helmet, they are going down into the shafts unprotected and put their lives in danger to bring mineral-encrusted rocks to the surface. Other children work sitting on the rocks at surface level without protective gears and collecting minerals that they find, sifting rocks and mine residue, sorting the minerals, and then washing them so that they can be transported.
While children under 18 cannot legally work in Congo’s mines, the law is usually ignored for a range of economic and social reasons. The role played by the national government seems not to bear fruits in eliminating child labour because the Mining Code 2002 and Regulations contain limited guidance on health and safety, and extremely few provisions to guard artisanal miners’ labour rights, and lack of capacity within governmental agencies to monitor and enforce safeguards and improve the working and living conditions for artisanal miners.
Many children start working in mines at a young age, and families with limited income and economic opportunities come to depend upon the money their children earn from mining activities. Artisanal small-scale mining has become a source of livelihood for several people in the country. Child mining is further exacerbated by the problem of implementing public policies favouring child protection, limited public resources for the eradication of child labor, and the absence of quality education in mining communities. Child miners are not protected from health and safety hazards and where there is negligence, these world’s largest mining companies are sceptical to adequately effect compensation.
A lawsuit was brought against the Five of the world’s largest Tech and Automobile companies (Alphabet, Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla) in Washington DC in 2019. These companies are accused of being complicit in the death of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo who were forced to mine cobalt, a metal used to make telephones, computers, and electrical cars. The companies were part of a system of forced labor that led to the death and serious injury of child miners. These richest, fancy gadget and car-making companies in the world have allowed children to be injured and killed in a bid to get cheap cobalt and other precious minerals. However, these companies sought to dismiss the case, citing that they have no control over conditions in mining companies.
The question that any rational person should ask is, are these Tech and Automobile companies contributing to the continued conflicts that make the working class and the poor to bear the brunt and undermine the development of the Democratic Republic of Congo ?