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Mon 6 July 2020
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James Melville explains why slavery isn’t just a historic issue of statues and how your mobile phone contributes to the modern enslavement of 40 million people

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While statutes of our inglorious imperialistic slave trade past are upended and graffitied, we mustn’t lose sight of the slavery of the present. Today, an estimated 40.3 million people — more than three times the figure during the transatlantic slave trade — are living in some form of modern slavery, according to the latest figures published by the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation.

Children make up 25% and account for 10 million of all the slaves worldwide.

Globally, more than half of the 40.3 million victims (24.9 million) are in forced labour, which means they are working against their will and under threat, intimidation or coercion. Global slavery accounts for one in 20 of the world’s population.

Meanwhile, our mobile phones continue to put the blood, sweat and toil of modern slavery right into our hands. Our digital society is tainted by the misery of the 40,000 children working in slave labour in Congo’s cobalt mines.


Child Labour used in Cobalt Mining in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) – CNN

Cobalt Slave Labour

Cobalt compound is found in every lithium-ion rechargeable battery on the planet – from smartphones to tablets to laptops to electric vehicles. It is also used to produce to manufacture jet engines, gas turbines and magnetic steel. When we send an email, browse the Internet, check social media, drive an electric car or fly in a plane, almost certainly it will have cobalt as a production component. It is also likely that it has been sourced from slave labour cobalt mines. 

Our unwitting consumerism is smeared with a production of slavery, misery and oppression. Children from 6 years-old spend the entire day in the cobalt mines of Congo bent over, digging with a small shovel or bare hands to gather cobalt-containing heterogenite stones, often in searing heat, which eventually end up in our mobile phones. 

More than 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined in the copper belt of the south-eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). At least 20% of this supply is mined by locals of all ages. 255,000 Congolese citizens are mining cobalt, with at least 40,000 of whom are children. The remainder is produced by industrial mines that are typically operated by foreign buying companies – in particular from China.


China Collects

China has aggressively cornered the global cobalt trading market by buying up many of the Congolese mines. Chinese companies run most of the buying houses that purchase cobalt mines from child slaves in Congo and which are then sold to major component manufacturers and consumer electronic companies across the world.

According to Amnesty International, none of these multinational buying and trading companies are making sufficient efforts to prevent the industrial slavery oppressed women, men and children of the Congo who toil in appalling conditions, receive pitiful wages, risk grave injury and death to mine their cobalt. 

Yet while major consumer electronics and automobile companies state they do not tolerate child labour in their supply chains, none have invested enough resources or time into ensuring that they can fully address the slavery legacy that lurks in the products they sell to millions across the world. They have consistently shifted responsibility for human rights abuses in the Congo on to their Chinese suppliers.

Apple, Google, Tesla and Microsoft are among firms named in a lawsuit seeking damages over deaths and injuries of child miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The case has been filed by the International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 Congolese families.


Facilitating Slave Labour

Siddharth Kara, author, activist and expert on modern-day slavery and human trafficking, recently stated that “the companies that source cobalt from DRC are surely aware of the appalling conditions under which the mineral is mined in some sites in the country.”

“Any company sourcing cobalt from DRC must establish an independent, third-party system of verification that all mineral supply chains are cleansed of exploitation, cruelty, slavery, and child labour,” Kara continued: “They must invest whatever is needed to ensure the decent pay, safe and dignified working conditions, healthcare, education and general wellbeing of the people whose cheap labour they rely on.”

Any organisation facilitating in slave labour to extract cobalt from the mines in Congo must be made accountable and they must step up to end this grotesque abuse of human rights. There is little we can do as consumers apart from refusing to buy products tarred by association with slavery in their production.

The supply chain of cobalt from the DRC is tainted by the blood and misery of forced slavery and it often ends up in the mobile phone held in our own hands. The exploitation of children, in whatever guise, is a crime against humanity. The slave mining of cobalt in the DRC must become a global outcry and companies who industrialise and also then sell cobalt compound products must be pressurised to stop all forms of exploitation. And pressure must be exerted on China by the international community. 

Modern-day slavery must be stopped by the global community – from the stone to the phone.

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