By Ben Goldson
Some of the world’s most powerful companies are being sued on behalf of child labourers either maimed or killed while mining for cobalt, bringing attention to the methods by which the valuable mineral is extracted for global consumption.
In a historic lawsuit, major tech companies are being brought to trial for using cobalt mined by child labourers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Key to the lithium batteries, which power untold numbers of consumer goods, the mineral is known for its scarcity, with over half the world’s supply coming from the DRC. Cobalt is also notorious for the exploitative and dangerous nature of its extraction, with minors making up a significant percentage of the workforce. Employed in a range of tasks, they are not spared the many dangers of mining, and can be found in the nooks and crannies inaccessible to their older colleagues. At the other end of these cramped and dangerous tunnels are consumers around the world, whose reliance on small electronics has fueled global demand for cobalt.
Combined with lithium and carbon dioxide, the mineral is transformed into a substance known as lithium cobalt oxide, a crystalline solid whose high conductivity makes it ideal for use in batteries. With the growth in demand for consumer electronics in recent years, the demand for cobalt has spiked along with it, good news for companies with interests in the “Copperbelt” region of Central Africa. A rich vein of copper, along with various other minerals, the belt straddles the DRC and Zambia, with mining communities based along it. For years it has supplied cobalt to the world, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, who are among a range of companies on trial for their role in the mineral’s controversial supply chain. Being heard in the US capital, Washington D.C., the lawsuit has been brought forward by International Rights Advocates on behalf of children killed or maimed while digging for cobalt. Formerly the legal arm of the International Labor Rights Fund, the group has made extensive use of a US-law called the Alien Tort Statute to sue domestic businesses and individuals for the violation of American laws while overseas. The defendants in these lawsuits now include the world’s most powerful tech companies, who are charged with buying cobalt from sources they knew to be exploitative, specifically the sprawling Glencore conglomerate.
Founded in 1974 by commodities trader Marc Rich, Glencore’s role in the cobalt trade is just one of its many controversies. Rich himself was indicted for breaching an Iranian oil embargo in 1983 and fled the United States for Switzerland, where he remained despite a pardon by President Bill Clinton. In the early 1990s, Rich parted ways with Glencore, although his open-door policy when it comes to questionable business partners remains in force. Described by Reuters as “the biggest company you never heard of” in 2011, the company has extensive interests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, having bought a majority share in Katanga Mining for around US$500 million. A restive yet mineral-rich province, Katanga attempted to secede from the DRC soon after independence in 1960, with support from mining company Union Minière du Haut-Katanga (“Mining Union of Upper-Katanga”) as well as white settlers and the Belgian government. The resulting chaos is believed to have killed around 100,000 people, including pan-Africanist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Arrested by forces loyal to Army Chief of Staff Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, Lumumba was taken to Katanga and executed in early 1961. His death led to another four years of instability, which ended with the rise of Mobutu to the Presidency, which he held onto for decades amidst accusations of corruption and brutality.
Having renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, the new President died in office aged 66 in 1997, around the same time as the company which eventually came to be known as Katanga Mining Limited began operating. During the financial crash of the late 2000s, however, the company came dangerously close to ceasing operations, saved by an influx of cash from Glencore. With the now massive demand for cobalt, the company’s market capitalisation is over US$7 billion, a wise investment by its multinational parent. At the same time, little has changed for the masses of miners who dig up the valuable mineral that powers much of the world. In 2017, researchers from the University of Berkeley conducted a survey in the Copperbelt, finding that respondents cited poverty as the most important factor in the ongoing use of child labour. Studying the wider communities which are based in the mineral rich area, the survey found that the average household income per capita was US$35 each month, with two thirds of respondents reporting concern about food security. Another academic who has conducted extensive research in the area is a fellow member of the Berkeley faculty, anti-slavery economist Siddarth Kara, who estimates that more than 30,000 children were working in the DRC’s cobalt mines in field work that serves as the basis for the lawsuit filed by International Rights Advocates.
It remains to be seen how the trial, which pits a small non-profit against the might of corporate lawyering, will play out in court. In an interview with Forbes, technology journalist Arthur Goldstuck was unsure whether the lawsuit itself will be successful but expressed hope that consumer pressure would motivate companies to send their own staff to enforce minimum standards at the site of extraction. Despite Goldstuck’s faith in the court of public opinion and the reliability of self-regulation, Kara in contrast, calls for companies to create a third-party system to verify the origins of any cobalt they purchase. At any rate, the trial has already drawn attention from major media outlets and even if unsuccessful, could be part of a wider push to clean up the cobalt trade, an outcome which cannot come quickly enough for the thousands still toiling away in the Copperbelt.
Ben Goldson is a news and current affairs broadcaster at 95bFM radio in Auckland.