In December 2018, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Congolese doctor, Denis Mukwege, and Iraqi activist, Nadia Murad. At the reception in Oslo, Norway, Dr. Mukwege gave a heart-wrenching account of the horrors that go on in the Congolese mines where metals like cobalt – a critical component for rechargeable batteries – are extracted. His speech corroborated Amnesty International’s 2016 report which highlighted the human rights abuses and use of child labour in artisanal mining in DRC, and the irresponsibility of corporations who fail to question these abuses that they ultimately benefit from.
Since Amnesty’s 2016 report and a follow up publication in 2017, Corporations and other stakeholders have started improving on practices and setting better standards for participation in metal trade. The latest of these is the London Metal Exchange’s proposal for listed brands to engage in a “transparency and standards alignment”. In a statement released on Tuesday, LME notified the public of its “formal market-wide consultation on proposed rules for the application of responsible sourcing principles to all LME-listed brands.”
The proposal includes a red flag assessment for all LME listed brands to undertake by the end of 2020. Brands that fail to align to the stated standards or do not provide enough transparency by 2022 will be delisted from the metal market.
The Democratic Republic of Congo supplies more than half of the world’s cobalt. Up to a fifth of DRC’s cobalt supply to the world are from artisan miners, and are produced in some of the most dangerous conditions. The structure of artisanal mining operations is different depending on the sites. Some miners are labourers who work for the owner of the land, some work as teams, while others work with investors who fund the mining and manage sales.
Artisanal mining in DRC became popular in the 1990s and early 2000s when the state owned mining company collapsed, and President Laurent Kabila encouraged people to extract the minerals by themselves following the government’s failure to resurrect the mining industry.
A mining code was established in 2002 to pave the way for foreign investments in the mining sector. The regulation still allowed artisanal mining, but restricted such methods of extraction to specific areas referred to as the Artisanal Mining Zones. It is estimated that there are 110,000 to 150,000 artisanal miners in Southern DRC.
These mines notoriously fail to provide basic safety kits such as gloves, masks and overalls, thereby exposing the labourers to hazardous conditions with high risks of respiratory and skin diseases. Child labour is another abusive menace that goes on in these mines, with more than 35,000 children estimated to be working in mines. Reports have also linked proceeds from these mines to conflict financing in DRC.
The newly proposed measures by the LME which will compel its listed brands to be more responsible for the sourcing of its metals to ensure they were not produced under dangerous conditions and with child labour, could make artisanal mining in DRC less lucrative. Already, German vehicle manufacturer, BMW has announced that to be certain of the source of cobalt used to produce its next generation of Electronic Vehicles by 2020, it will only purchase directly from industrial miners in Australia and Morocco.
In 2018, BMW, BASF, Samsung SDI and the German Development Agency (GIZ) launched a pilot project which would explore ways to improve the conditions of miners in DRC. The project was said to involve one pilot mine in the next three years and then scaled to other artisan mines if proven effective.
As more traders and corporate buyers move to establish tighter monitoring initiatives to track the origin of metals, or launch programmes that will improve the working conditions at the mines, the hazardous working conditions for miners can be curtailed.