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The Hidden Truth

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Except it isn’t hidden, is it? A quick search will bring up countless articles on the topic. It has been reported. It’s been written about. But it is still happening. The hands of children are making it possible for the largest tech and manufacturing companies in the world to sell you battery-laden gadgets, billions of dollars are made, facilitated by a supply-chain where children are on the front line.

What is Cobalt? A Short Primer

“Cobalt (Co) is a bluish-gray, shiny, brittle metallic element. It has magnetic properties similar to iron. There are no significant minerals of cobalt. It is rare and obtained mostly through refining of nickel ore. It is used in superalloys for jet engines, chemicals magnets, and cemented carbides for cutting tools. Principal cobalt-producing countries include Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Canada, Cuba, Australia and Russia. The United States consumes about one-third of total world production. Cobalt resources in the United States are low grade and production from these deposits is usually not economically feasible.”

Minerals Education Coalition

The Children That Suffer

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Imagine a child running in a field, chasing after a ball. A child giggling while blowing bubbles. A child coloring, lost in the wonder of imagination. A child looking up to an adult with adoration and worship.

Reality however, paints the bleakest picture when children are often involved. Not all children run in a field, or play with a ball. Not all children giggle or blow bubbles. Some children have lost the wonder of imagination and some have ceased looking at adults with hero worship.

Children who are victims of abuse often end up being scarred for life or worse: dead.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), child abuse is more than systemic; it is a way of life. Thousands of Congolese children are exploited to work in unregulated and unmonitored cobalt mines found all over the country.

Instead of going to school and receiving an education, or running around and playing, children some as young as 4 years old, are being forced to work 12-16 hour shifts on these mining sites that pay them the equivalent of one British Pound or around a dollar and thirty cents for each shift for 6 days.

As the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, will this child exploitation issue ever gain enough traction for serious conversation, much more, be resolved considering that parents barely have enough for basic necessities for survival?

Cobalt Mining: The Harsh Reality

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The DRC remains an enigma - it is one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is a rich source of mineral supplies, that helps to power technology the world over. Think about it for a minute. What tech do you have laying around? Are you reading this on a tablet or smartphone?

Do you know where the minerals that are used in that batteries that power your devices come from? We don’t really think about it. It isn’t a consideration for us. WE know that our products are made by Apple, Samsung, Vizio, Nintendo, Sony. But do we know how their materials are sourced?

In 2017, UNICEF issued a shocking report that over 40,000 Congolese children are put to labor in cobalt mining sites where they are forced to work more than 12 hours a day under conditions that are downright inhumane and ghastly.

Many children being forced to work, have to routinely dig inside tunnels, armed with only their tiny hands for digging. Some are lucky to have tools such as a machete spade to help them dig. Most do not.

The excavations themselves are so dangerous that if they cave in, children are often buried alive inside. The cave-ins are now considered “acceptable” risk; with as many as 65 kids being buried alive in one day.

Additionally, most children are not even provided with protective clothing and most have to work shirtless and shoeless. Even under the most wretched of weather conditions and hazardous work environments, the purpose of labor is for a mineral that the DRC has in abundance. This mineral is cobalt and it is rapidly becoming one of the most precious minerals in the world today as it makes millions for multinational companies in the U.S and China, while children slave and suffer.

Inside the Real Dangers of Cobalt Excavation

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The dangers of working inside the cobalt mine tunnels are extremely perilous for any human because the tunnels are first dug by hand. Those who dig these tunnels have to do so with no protective gear such as harnesses that support them as they dig downwards.

As the tunnels are fully excavated, miners have to carefully climb down while placing their feet inside holes that are carved into the rock. They also have to use their arms to push on rocks in order to stabilize their bodies as they go deeper into the pit. Many times, the oxygen levels inside the tunnels are minimal and miners need to breathe various harmful elements that hang like deadly miasma in the small shaft.

To make matters even worse is most of these tunnels are so unstable that they are known to frequently collapse, especially when it rains. This results in miners being trapped alive inside the tunnels. There is no rescue team. There are no safety guidelines, there is no hope. Some dig their way out. Some perish and are entombed in a pit that they labored to dig.

Health Effects of Cobalt Exposure

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Because most of the world’s supply of cobalt lies in Congo, children workers in the DGC are exposed to this mineral on a daily basis.While inside the tunnels the children are also surrounded by a lot of water from the rain. Prolonged exposure to cobalt can cause a multitude of negative health effects.

It affects a person’s respiratory system and causes difficulty breathing. Prolonged exposure to the mineral can cause many problems such as asthma, wheezing, and even pneumonia. The children who are forced to extract the cobalt mineral from the dirt often develop rashes, skin eczema, and allergies that they do not have funds to treat.

A broad range of medical issues including vision problems, heart and cardiovascular issues, thyroid damage, sterility and hair loss are also among those enumerated.

The Growing Demand for Cobalt in the DRC

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Cobalt is becoming more and more precious than gold as most people use it every day. To those unaware, the mineral cobalt is an essential ingredient in lithium-ion batteries that work to power mobile devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and electric cars to name a few.

It is one of 40 minerals used make smartphones. The supply chain of cobalt mining to factory development occurs in this manner:Cobalt suppliers first gather cobalt by any means possible. This includes the use of child workers.

Next, tech companies order from these suppliers by the bulk then ship these large amounts into their factories where they use cobalt in their factory assembly lines to create smartphones, laptops, and electric cars. Finally, it ends up in the hands of consumers who have absolutely no clue about the hidden cost of their devices: blood, sweat, abuse, and even death.

Congolese Mining Deaths Result in Tech Lawsuits

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Congolese child labor has made headlines before. This is not a new story.

In 2018, Amnesty International put the biggest car manufacturers like Daimler, Volkswagen, General Motors, Tesla, BMW and Fiat-Chrysler on notice regarding the child labor & exploitation in their supply chains. All responded and pledge to meet their due diligence obligations include obtaining their cobalt from Australia and Morocco.

More articles were written, more news was reported but it was not until this year, that the issue has gotten extremely massive coverage, because the world’s largest tech companies were sued by a human rights group who filed a lawsuit on behalf of 14 Congolese families whose children were injured or killed while mining.

Some of these well-known tech companies include Google, Dell, Apple, Tesla, and Microsoft. The companies were accused of being aware that child labor was ongoing in their current partnerships with Congolese cobalt providers. The lawsuit filed called for these tech giants to take responsibility for child mining taking place in their hunt for cobalt.

In defense, the companies have released statements addressing the lawsuit. Apple released a statement that they have taken action by removing 6 cobalt refineries who have used children in their mining processes in 2019. Dell also released a statement denying that they were aware that there was child labor involved in their dealings in Congo. Google has also released a statement stating that it “works with suppliers and industry groups to tackle the problem both inside and outside the country”.

While some of these companies are considering abandoning DRC altogether, it needs to take into account at least some form of reparations for the damage it has caused with the families and the wasteland it turned the Congo into.

It hasn’t stopped

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As 2020 starts to roll in, the brutal exploitation of children in cobalt mines in the DRC is still as rampant as ever. Children are still working the mines digging and carrying heavy sacks filled with cobalt to be washed in rivers. The conditions in the mines have gotten more desperate as many families have willingly taken on the job of cobalt mining to provide them with the money for food, clothing, and shelter.

Children as young as 4 years old are already picking through the dirt, looking for stones that are worth extracting cobalt from, while older siblings and even parents work by digging tunnels and extracting cobalt inside these mines.

The cobalt mines are something that have become intertwined into the lives of Congolese families and their lives are a tapestry of pain, suffering and bitter acceptance. They have to embrace the painful reality of the mines to survive, with little choice of much else.

Instead of fighting for the opportunity to have their children receive an education which costs $6 a year, many parents are now open to having their children slave away their adolescence just to earn more money to buy food and shelter.

The fact that families seem to prefer labor over education is not unusual for third world countries where children are often seen as manual laborers. It becomes a no-win scenario because the government is doing nothing to rectify the situation.

While there is much talk about reducing carbon footprints and hailing new environmental activists, no one seems to be talking about the plight of these children. There is so much stigma attached to gas guzzling cars; considerable backlash for buying blood diamonds and coffee that is not fair trade. But no one seems to be talking about the children who toil; risking life and limb for our smartphones.

There is a dirty side to clean energy and the price we pay for using the most advanced tech is indeed very high.

I love my laptop and phone as much as the next person, but there has got to be a better alternative than using shoeless shirtless children so we can take instagrammable selfies.

When did we get comfortable trading lives for ease and convenience? When did we start defining “acceptable” risk to include death, so we can placate our egos by being hip and cool with the newest tech?

There are no easy solutions but this deserves more than just a quick read. The Congolese children deserve at least a serious dialogue.

It may be between friends or family members sharing a meal. It maybe in the hallowed walls of academia or in the inner sanctum of power boardrooms.

But it should start with a conversation.

It should start here.