There’s blood in our smartphones and electric cars (review of Siddharth Kara’s Cobalt Red)

What’s a child’s life worth?

For children cursed to live in southeast Congo, we’ve decided their lives are worth the eight grams of cobalt in our smartphones.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa has the world’s largest cobalt reserves. It’s an essential element for the batteries that’ll drive our renewable energy revolution. To get some sense of the demand for cobalt, multiply eight grams by the world’s 6.8 billion smartphone users. And then add the six to 12 kilograms of cobalt needed for each of the 10 million electric vehicles expected to be sold this year alone.

The race is on to get as much cobalt out of the ground as fast and cheaply as possible. Working alongside industrial mines in the Congo are artisanal miners. Many are children who are being exploited, poisoned, beaten, raped, buried alive, crushed, maimed, murdered and killed in horrific accidents. They have no choice. If they don’t dig, they starve.

“Across twenty-one years of research into slavery and child labor, I have never seen more extreme predation for profit than I witnessed at the bottom of global cobalt supply chains,” says Siddharth Kara, a former investment banker, senior fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and “Cobalt Red” author. “The titanic companies that sell products containing Congolese cobalt are worth trillions, yet the people who dig their cobalt out of the ground eke out a base existence characterized by extreme poverty and immense suffering.

“The harsh realities of cobalt mining in the Congo are an inconvenience to every stakeholder in the chain,” says Kara. “No company wants to concede that the rechargeable batteries used to power smartphones, tablets, laptops and electric vehicles contain cobalt mined by peasants and children in hazardous conditions.”

While companies put out performative press releases that virtue signal their commitments to human rights, ethically sourced supply chains and zero-tolerance policies on child labour, Kara has seen what’s actually happening in the Congo. He takes readers on a hellish road trip through the Central African Copper Belt. He risks retribution from soldiers and private militias as he tours mines and neighbouring villages to talk with maimed children and grieving parents. One young woman told Kara she was grateful for her two miscarriages because it was better not to born into her world.

“The ongoing exploitation of the poorest people of the Congo by the rich and powerful invalidates the purported moral foundation of contemporary civilization and drags humanity back to a time when the people of Africa were valued only by their replacement costs.

“Cobalt mining is the slave farm perfected – the cost of labor has been nullified through the degradation of Africans at the bottom of an economic chain that purports to exonerate all participants of accountability through a shrewd scheme of obfuscation adorned with hypocritical proclamations about the preservation of human rights. It is a system of absolute exploitation for absolute profits.”

So what’s the solution? “The biggest problem faced by the Congo’s artisanal miners is not the gun-toting soldiers, unscrupulous Chinese buyers, exploitative mining cooperatives or collapsing tunnels,” says Kara.

“These and other antagonists are but symptoms of a greater menace. The biggest problem faced by the Congo’s artisanal mines is that stakeholders up the chain refuse to accept responsibility for them, even though they all profit in one way or another from their work.

“Rather than issue vacant statements on zero-tolerance policies and other hollow PR, corporations should do one simple thing that would truly help: treat the artisanal miners as equal employees to the people who work at corporate headquarters.”

As Kara points out in his book, Apple would never allow kids to dig tunnels next to their Cupertine, California headquarters or stand in toxic pools of wastewater to wash rocks for a dollar a day.  

If that fate is unimaginable for our kids, why’s it acceptable for the children who are dying in the Congo? Are their lives really worth nothing more than the eight grams of cobalt in our smartphones?

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Photo by Abdullah Omar on Unsplash.