Combating modern slavery in artisanal cobalt mining is vital to achieving the Paris Agreement targets

October 19, 2020
Sewing apprentices take part in a Pact program that is reducing child labor in mining in DRC by helping older children find safer, alternative sources of income. (Photo: Pact)

Coinciding with Anti-Slavery Day on October 18, last week the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) released its review of UK aid spending to tackle modern slavery in developing countries. At least 40.3 million people – 0.5% of the world’s population – are estimated by the International Labour Organization to be victims of modern slavery. This umbrella term includes the most extreme forms of exploitation, encompassing forced labor, debt bondage and the worst forms of child labor – such as children working in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM).

Led by ICAI Commissioner Sir Hugh Bayley, the review examined the impact of the £200 million overseas development aid pledged for tackling modern slavery by the UK Government in 2018 and was mixed in its findings. It outlines that while diplomatic and influencing efforts had successfully raised the global profile of the issue, there was more need for survivor consultation, research on what works, and long-term impacts. The review noted that “different approaches and different evidence bases are needed to address the different elements of modern slavery, including capturing the varied gendered experiences.” This point certainly rings true among our experts of the Mines to Markets program at Pact, who have, for close to a decade, been working with mining communities and the private sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and wider African Great Lakes Region to address expressions of modern slavery including human rights abuses and child labor, and support global companies to ensure responsible mineral sourcing. Indeed, the ICAI’s review highlighted mining as an example of a sector that needs tailored interventions to address specific dynamics.

The rich mineral, forest and natural resources of the DRC and complicated governance context warrants such an approach. Here, approximately 1 million people or about 1% of its population are said to be living in modern slavery, and perhaps as many as 40,000 children working in artisanal cobalt mines. These figures paint a depressing picture, especially when considering how vital DRC’s artisanal cobalt sector is to the world’s clean energy revolution.

As a key component of electric vehicle batteries, cobalt has never been so important, with annual demand estimated by the World Bank to reach 644,000 tons by the year 2050  ̶  a staggering 460% that of current production levels. The demands on DRC’s artisanal cobalt miners, who currently produce a significant portion of the world’s supply, can also therefore be expected to increase dramatically. Unless other global deposits of cobalt ore can come online in time and produce enough of the bluish gray metal to meet rising demand, achieving the ambitious Paris Agreement climate change targets to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 - 2°C will likely be impossible without DRC’s artisanal cobalt miners.

Artisanal cobalt mining in DRC therefore presents an incredible development opportunity to provide long-term job creation and much needed investment in rural economies and communities. Though estimates range dramatically, the sub-sector employs as many as 200,000 people directly and supports the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands more. Meanwhile, as a whole, the ASM sector in DRC, which also produces important technology metals such as gold and the 3Ts (tin, tungsten, and tantalum), employs 1.5 - 2million people countrywide, supporting an estimated five times as many family members. But it is also essential that increased demand for these metals does not come at a cost for the most vulnerable.

The five recommendations made by the ICAI in its review must be taken on board to ensure that UK aid spending can deliver on its overall objective to help eradicate modern slavery as enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 8.7. But the recommendations also have relevance to other donors, development partners and policymakers working to address modern slavery in ASM. This includes taking a systematic approach to filling knowledge gaps and sector-specific data, engaging more with survivor voices to inform programming, and focusing on neglected areas of modern slavery – under which ASM most definitely falls. Our extensive research, practical training and responsible mineral sourcing work with partners in the DRC to date can certainly benefit further from deepening and extending our existing efforts in these key areas. 

Due to its widespread informality and largely poverty-driven nature, ASM is often hidden, creating a real risk that these communities, which comprise some of the most marginalized women, children and vulnerable people, will be left behind in wider development efforts. Crucially, as ICAI’s final recommendation makes clear, it is also imperative that efforts are made to proactively engage and strengthen existing partnerships with the private sector. This approach is one that is at the heart of Pact’s Children Out of Mining work, which is supported directly by many private-sector partners and also engages directly across government departments and agencies as well as with ASM communities in the DRC to help eradicate modern slavery from mineral supply chains. Through more partnerships on this issue, and sustained practical interventions on the ground, the world’s green energy revolution can help drive both global and local sustainable economic and social development.

Pact projects and resources helping to promote responsible mineral sourcing and address modern slavery

  1. Combatting Modern Slavery in DRC-UK Mineral Supply Chains

Working in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office via the British Embassy Kinshasa, research, practical training and advocacy workshops were held with more than 450 stakeholders in DRC and more than 40 in the UK, including cobalt miners, private sector, government, industry associations, and civil society to better understand the issues of modern slavery in DRC-UK cobalt supply chains and provide guidance on the issue.

  1. International Tin Supply Chain Initiative (ITSCI)

ITSCI is a traceability due diligence program establishing responsible sourcing in 3T mineral supply chains to achieve avoidance of conflict financing, human rights abuses or other risks such as bribery and corruption. ITSCI is the only industry initiative with standards independently confirmed to be 100% aligned with the OECD Due Diligence Guidance on Responsible Mineral Supply Chains. Pact, as field implementer of ITSCI, supports monitoring and mitigation of risks on the ground, enabling metal users to source responsibly and avoid disengagement from conflict and high-risk areas, while ensuring that miners continue to benefit from responsible business opportunity. 

  1. Children Out of Mining Program

We use a rights-based and child-centred approach to address child labor in mining, which promotes coordination and accountability between actors to respond to child miners' needs through the delivery of local solutions that are adapted to the context that led them to work in the mines. Our portfolio of projects has been made possible by support from various partners, including the GE Foundation, The Boeing Company, International Tin Association, Qualcomm, Microsoft, Google, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rocbelt, Hope Mining Cooperative, Children’s Voice, ARDERI, Trafigura Foundation, ERG, Dell and others. Our projects aim to build the capacity of government institutions, communities and private-sector partners to implement specific interventions to end child labor in mining. In Kolwezi, Pact is funded by the United States Department of Labor to work collaboratively with local private-sector actors to identify monitoring, referral and remediation best practices to combat child labor and scale them up throughout the cobalt supply chain.

                         a. Youth Apprenticeships

To ensure that adolescents can choose from a range of apprenticeships that reflect feasible and profitable trades within their community, our field teams conduct detailed market studies. We then identify out-of-school youth aged 15 to 17 who are working on mine sites to undergo a six-month intensive apprenticeship in a trade of their choice under the supervision of a mentor. Funded by private-sector partners Eurasian Resources Group, Trafigura Foundation and Responsible Business Alliance, to date our youth apprenticeship activities have assisted 466 youth to thrive in an alternative livelihood to mining by equipping them with vocational and business skills. Of these, 99% have left mining and embraced their alternative livelihood 16 months after graduation, with 98% of graduates earning more than when they were working in the mines.

                        b. WORTH Savings Groups

WORTH, Pact’s flagship economic empowerment progrm, supports ASM workers to increase their economic resilience by focusing on savings, entrepreneurship and literacy. Pact has established 44 WORTH groups for saving and loan activities, with around 1,196 members (women and men). Their own money has been lent to members to start and expand small businesses or pay for their children’s education fees.