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#NoCongoNoPhone: Tech’s reliance on cobalt

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In a progressively health conscious society, we are more inclined to scrutinise the ingredients in our food than the components that make up our tech products. Probably because your phone won’t cause you to suffer an allergic reaction – but, what if I told you someone may have suffered to get you your phone?

The hashtag #Congoisbleeding has been circulating social media over the past few months leading many to believe that the issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are recent. However, around 8 million people have been killed, euphemised as ‘the silent holocaust’; a fact neglected by the mainstream media.

The complexity of the atrocities in the DRC stem from the colonial period. Congo’s richness in natural resources such as rubber, ivory and minerals has made it subject to exploitation for centuries; to the disbenefit of the Congolese people.

It’s easy to feel quite detached from the instability in the central African country – geographically its miles away. Nevertheless, as cobalt, a mineral this article premises on, is becoming increasingly utilised in the ever-growing tech and green industries, remnants of the DRC resonate in our daily lives more commonly than we think. 

What is cobalt and where is it used?

Cobalt is an essential mineral found in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. This type of battery is used in phones, laptops, and more recently electric vehicles due to its high energy density; so it gives these products a long run-time. Around 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the DRC, hence the multi-interested reliance on its extraction from the country.

A burgeoning interest is the accelerating alignment with solutions that address the environmental crisis. The UK government has committed to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 and is set to ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. Electric vehicles play an important part of achieving these goals, overall emphasising the significance of a battery that meets this need.

Also, highlighting why the demand for cobalt has tripled over the past 5 years and is expected to rise five-fold in the future. The mineral is undeniably popular; though, countless miners in the DRC would contest that their human rights have been unjustly violated.

Why can it be unethical?

Artisanal mining takes place in southern DRC in unregulated areas where health and safety protections are absent. The lack of tools to and equipment means that many workers are susceptible to serious and fatal injury in the pursuit of cobalt.  Chronic exposure to dust containing cobalt can lead to lung diseases and contact with cobalt can result in a skin condition called dermatitis.

Amnesty International released a sobering report detailing the involvement of around 40 000 children in artisanal mining. Congo has an inadequately funded education system, so children are forced, by extreme poverty, to work in hazardous conditions. Clearly, these human rights abuses are grievous, but as the miners are economically vulnerable, they continue to work out of necessity.

In 2019 NGO International Rights Advocates brought a claim against the world’s biggest tech companies on the behalf of Congolese families. The lawsuit alleges their children were maimed or killed while mining for cobalt used in the supply chains of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Testa (to name a few) therefore rendering them liable.  

The filing mentions a 15 year old who died trying to crawl out of a collapsing mine tunnel. He worked as a ‘human mule’ carrying bags of rocks containing cobalt weighing more than 30kg for less than £1 a day. Namely, one of the recurring incidents too frequent in the resource’s cultivation which NGOs are seeking to hold dominant companies accountable for.

The defendant tech companies have requested a dismal of the claim, refuting that they didn’t have ‘requisite knowledge’ of the abuses at the mining sites named. The cohort reason, amongst other things, that as cobalt is exchanged many times before it enters their supply chains it is hard to identify its source. Therefore, they cannot be held liable as it cannot be determined if the cobalt from the stated mines are even in their supply chains that manufacture their products.

Furthermore, the defendants argue that they have all conducted robust due diligence procedures to comply with international standards which prohibit the use of child labour.

Upon reflection, whatever the outcome of the suit is, it is abundantly clear that more needs to be address the lack transparency in identifying the source of cobalt. This would help ensure proper regulation to protect workers and establish ethical work practices.

What is being done?

Elon Musk has announced that Tesla will cut the use of cobalt altogether. This is an ambitious plan due to cobalt’s advantage in keeping batteries stable; although, nickel is being heavily invested in as a substitute that can help batteries pack more power and has a suitably more transparent supply chain.

Moreover, batteries is another option which simultaneously addresses the environmental impact that the extraction of minerals can entail; however, cobalt needs to highly pure to be utilised efficiently.

These alternatives to cobalt have their apparent benefits, but, as has been duly recognised, cutting off artisanal mining would be a potentially devastating blow to fragile local economies.

So, initiatives like the Fair Cobalt Alliance aim to support communities and improve mining conditions in the DRC; membership includes two of the world’s largest suppliers, Glencore and Huayou, with recent admission of Tesla. Alongside this, the political effort is strengthening as the government in the DRC has committed to eliminate child labour from the mining sector by 2025.

Overall, there is seemingly a growing international effort to rectify the concerns raised in the DRC’s mining industry. Where we fit in as consumers is to at least be aware of what may have occurred to give us the tech products we depend on.

It is not enough that cobalt’s source cannot be identified at times, this could dangerously give rise to the continuation of the discussed injustices.

We wield a considerable amount of influence to pressurise companies to ensure they are holding ubiquitous standards which regard human life and dignity throughout their supply chains.

In a globalised community we are connected; we owe it in solidarity with the miners to ensure they have the best quality of life when undertaking this strenuous activity.  

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