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It is rather painful and sad that while kids are learning and playing with their gadgets in Europe and America, some African kid is somewhere undergoing a very painful experience just to provide the raw material used for the manufacture of those devices. The world barely notices it because it is happening somewhere in Africa where ‘anything goes’, conveniently forgetting that before the colours, we were all first humans, and humanity must always come first.
In several parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which is in Central Africa, the issue of slavery and child Labour in the mining of cobalt has become perhaps one of the most abhorrent practices carried out on children by people who are supposed to protect them from such. No fewer than 40,000 children work in cobalt mines every year just to help the greedy merchant satisfy their greed and balance their demands.
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DR Congo has become a notorious state where children are simply thrown into hazardous and wild environments to work their heads out with little or zero hope of survival. For most of the superiors and companies who push them to it, obtaining cobalt for batteries which they will use to make phones, electric cars, laptops, and various gadgets is far more important than the lives of these young ones. It is even more heart-wrenching that many of these children earn less than $2 per day while deploying their only available tools which are their hands.
Most of these kids actually come from very remote towns and villages and the chances that their voices will ever be heard is almost non-existent. They don’t go to school so there is no future for them to hope for. The owners of mines have simply taken advantage of the informality of the sector to get away with cheap labour while they smile to the banks with billions of dollars every year.
Under very dangerous conditions, these children are made to work as washers and diggers and do all manner of odd jobs which even an adult will find extremely strenuous. Because of the harsh realities of life that these kids face, they even go to the extent of engaging in petty smuggling and selling of Coltan for peanuts in several towns along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi just to make ends meet. Under such circumstances, they are always exposed to harassment, ill health, all manners of abuse and even death. As if this is not enough, their masters do not care about the fact that, on a daily basis, they are exposed to a radioactive substance associated with coltan known as ‘Radon’ which can cause very dangerous cancer. The language these taskmasters understand is money, so these concerns will not make sense to them.
Clearly, this ugly situation must stop. The government of the DRC has, before now, put in place several measures to fight this ugly trend but not much has been achieved. Quite several laws have been passed, and certification standards for the extractive sector have been signed, yet there seems to be no end in sight. These children are still on the receiving end of the brutality of these companies who desire cobalt and must get it by all means.
It is important to note that the DRC is presently a signatory to several international certification protocols among which are the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, the Regional Certification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region, the Dodd-Frank Act, and many others.
All these treaties and conventions heavily frown on child Labour, yet the country has not been able to stop it. Rather than protect children from being exploited in the coltan mines of the DRC, these commitments have rather fuelled them. In the country, the certifications are mere papers and documents which have no real power to influence changes and save the lives of helpless kids.
In the DRC, the willpower to force compliance to those commitments is almost zero, the provincial departments saddled with the responsibilities of monitoring and fighting child labour on mining sites are hampered by poor funding or poor staffing. To make matters worse, these companies involved in this ungodly act have mastered the act of circumventing mineral certification protocols and getting away with absurdities.
So where can one even start?
These painful realities will make one wonder, why exactly did the country sign those certifications and treaties?
Today, many big-tech companies such as Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Apple, Dell, Tesla, and Microsoft have in one way or the other been mentioned in lawsuits in matters concerning serious injuries and even deaths sustained among child laborers while working on cobalt mines in the DRC. This is positive, but more needs to be done. Awareness must be heightened even as activities continue to draw the attention of the international community to these anomalies.
The African Union, AU perhaps has the biggest role to play here. It must look for very creative ways to rally African leaders to beam their searchlight on these Coltan mines to end child labour. The union must understand the power it wields and deploy it effectively. The West which obviously doesn’t rate Africans will not fight this scourge. The AU must declare an emergency to bring these actions to its knees. Africa cannot continue like this!
Finally, it is true that cobalt can make the DRC, or indeed any nation a very wealthy country, but every stakeholder must do their best to make sure that young children and their future will not be sacrificed on that altar.
Child labour is ugly, despicable, wicked, primitive, desperate, and inhumane, it must stop and be relegated to the dustbin of history!