The Children Building China

In 2015 China announced its ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative: a set of programs intended to boost the country’s economy and make it a leading power in high-tech industries. China is focusing its energies on major sectors like electrical equipment and energy efficient vehicles. The country’s attempts to further cement itself as a global economic power have come with an exorbitant cost: child labor. 

China’s concentration on technology sectors means that it needs access to cobalt. Cobalt is a metal that is found in everything from electric cars to laptops to batteries. In order to fulfill the goals set by the MIC 2025 initiative, China needs readily available cobalt. But where to turn to in order to ensure such access? The Democratic Republic of Congo.

The DRC is the world’s largest source of cobalt. It accounts for more than half of the world’s precious metal. As a result of the country’s large stores of cobalt, China has been heavily investing in the central African state in order to gain access to the country’s coveted natural resources. In 2007, China and the DRC signed the Sicomines deal. The deal outlined that in return for investment in the DRC’s infrastructure, China would receive extensive cobalt mining rights. As of 2018, Chinese companies owned 8 of the DRC’s 14 largest mines. China was also the primary refiner of cobalt, accounting for roughly 80% of the world’s chemical cobalt refining capabilities.

China’s growing control over the cobalt supply chain has a dark side. Several of the Chinese-owned mines in the DRC use child labor. At the end of 2019, several families filed a joint lawsuit against major tech corporations like Apple, Dell and Tesla. These families are accusing the companies of knowingly sourcing cobalt for their products from mines that use child labor. Several of the Jane and John Doe child miners in the case worked at cobalt sites owned by the Chinese company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt. The lawsuit has specific testimonials of the serious injury and death of children working in these cobalt mines. One such minor is a 17-year-old John Doe who was in a mine that collapsed on him and 39 other people. He was one of two survivors, but will never be able to walk again because of the incident. His story is just one of many heartbreaking accounts of injury due to company negligence. 

Illustration by: Zia Reigh Calpito

Child laborers working in the mines are not only subject to extreme injury but also suffer from chronic illnesses and pain. A 2016 Amnesty International Report took testimonials from a number of youths who worked in cobalt mines and were willing to discuss their constant sickness. 11-year-old Loïc talked about his chronic back pain from consistent lifting of sacks of cobalt that weighed anywhere from 45 to 90 lbs. Olivier, age 13, told researchers about his constant runny nose and persistent cough.  

I think it’s really important to clarify that not all DRC mines that use child labor are Chinese owned. In fact, the lawsuit also names Glencore, a UK-based mining company, as another corporation guilty of using child labor. Glencore owns the Katanga mine which accounted for 29% of the DRC’S cobalt output in 2017.  The company actually denied use of child labor in a statement given to Telgraph newspaper. 

“Glencore notes the allegations contained in a US lawsuit filed on Dec 15 2019. Glencore supports and respects human rights in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Glencore’s production of cobalt in the DRC is a by-product of our industrial copper production. Glencore does not purchase, process or trade any artisanally mined ore. Glencore does not tolerate any form of child, forced, or compulsory labour.”

Glencore

Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt denied to make a comment in relation to the lawsuit.

Illustration by: Zia Reigh Calpito

The principal difference between the actions of Glencore and Huayo is that Huayo’s actions are a direct result of China’s MIC 2025 initiative. Furthermore, China’s general dominance of the global supply chain for cobalt makes the country itself and its corporations extremely complicit in the continued exploitation of children. The country’s heavy involvement in the cobalt supply chain means that the country should be doing its due diligence to make sure its businesses are respecting human rights.

In the last decade, China has proven itself as a force to be reckoned with. The country’s MIC 2025 initiative is intended to further establish China as an economic powerhouse, especially in high-tech sectors. The state-sponsored program is well on its way to being realized, as shown by the large amounts of cobalt that China is mining and refining. However, we cannot ignore how much of this economic development is occurring at the expense of children in the DRC. Juveniles as young as 9 are suffering from chronic illnesses and at risk of extreme injury and death all while the Chinese companies that own or buy from the mines are turning a blind eye. Economic development is never worth more than a child’s life. It’s time for Chinese companies in the DRC to do their due diligence.