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The People Who Die to Make Your Cell Phone

With a population of at least 67 million, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the poorest countries in the world. In 2014, the World Bank ranked it second to last on the Human Development Index.

Despite the DRC’s poverty level, there is one thing that it has in abundance – cobalt. Cobalt is a mineral used to make lithium ion batteries that Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Dell, and many other companies use in their devices.

According to experts, more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the DRC, with 20 percent of it from what are called “artisanal mines.” For many Congolese people, mining cobalt is the only way to feed their families. Unfortunately, artisanal mines are smaller, independent mines, where an industrial-sized operation is not an option. These mines are unregulated and are not a part of the country’s Mining Code and Regulations, this means they are often unauthorized and extremely dangerous.

As a result, the workers are subjected to dangerous conditions that include poor ventilation, lack of protective gear, and frequent accidents—many of which prove deadly. But it’s not just adults that are risking their lives. The United Nations says there are at least 40,000 children in the DRC working in these artisanal mines. Working in high temperatures, rain, and storms, children as young as 7-years-old carry sacks of mineral ore that are sometimes heavier than themselves. Most of these children’s parents can’t afford to send them to school. The few that are able to send their kids to school must have their children work at the mines on the weekends to help support the family. Many suffer from breathing problems, others from sickness and disease. At least half reported being beaten for not working fast enough.

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Some of the possible long-term effects the children suffer from include joint and bone deformities, respiratory issues, and musculoskeletal injuries. Most complained of excruciating back and hip pain, others of chronic illness. But beyond the physical risks are less visible dangers. Chronic exposure to cobalt can be fatal, resulting in a condition called “hard metal lung disease.”

Despite the prevalence of studies confirming this, most of these miners work without protective equipment—no gloves, masks, or even work clothes. The workers are not provided safety equipment nor given directions on what to do in a crisis. Without any sort of armor against the hazardous conditions, death is common.

The route of the cobalt from these mines can be followed to a large corporation called Congo Dongfang Mining International (CDM). CDM is a subsidiary of the China-based company Huayou Cobalt, which supplies batteries to the most prestigious tech companies—including Apple, Sony, Samsung, Dell, and more.

Millions of people around the world enjoy the benefits of technologies that use cobalt but few are concerned with how they are made.

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14 Comments

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  1. So how do we do something to stop this? I’m sure if most ppl KNEW about this, they would be appalled. What can we do and how can we do it? Write the companies that make the phoned? Write the Congolese gov? If you’re going to out a practice like this then please also provide the links to the gov & corporations to hold to account!!!

    Thanks!

    • For starters you can buy only the tech you need. Don’t change your cell phone unless it breaks, as well as the notebook and the tablet (if you really need one)

  2. The Congolese government held responsible for the people n the menirals,must tighten the labour law,and foreign export

    • The corporations that benefit from their labor should ensure that they have all the basic protective equipment and gear that they need, no questions asked. These companies that were listed are Fortune 500 companies and rake in multi-millions. No excuse.

    • Try to write to the congolese government because their people fought for independence against the Europeans ans was not for afterwards work like slave for chinese companies. What next the Africans will be slaves of the Chinese I wont get too admired because Africa are in a very huge debt with China.
      Some Africans countries they probably won’t be able to pay the huge debt without enslaving even more their own people. Too sad we seen Africans being enslaved again and we cannot do nothing. First the Arabs then the Europeans who the next one are the Chinese.

  3. I agree with añl the above. My first thought on reading this (on my Apple iphone!!) was: what can we do to help stop this? Prople are NOT going to stop using/ replacing their devices. The DRC gvt is not going to close the mines….. and if they did, families wpulf lose income and be much worse off. Change has got to be droven by the big companies who buy these batteries. How can we pool our efforts to persiade Apple et al to improve working conditions? Things CAN change: don’t forget that in Victorian times, children used to work inside chimneys in Britain. Ideas on how to take this up effectovely with the big companies?????

  4. Hello, my name is Anthony Donald Nunley. I help start the new industry using lithium-ion in cars about 15 years ago. I just read this article and I’m appalled by the industry for not protecting these people from these harsh working conditions. I’ve been contacting companies for almost 2 decades for funding and the only response I get is the Silicon Valley investors starting their own electric car companies. It’s been a very long road for me, but nowhere near the struggle of these people. I’m so glad I read this article. If I ever get funding for Nunley Motor Crafts Ltd., I will make sure these people get proper protective gear and equipment. I’m still fighting to earn the funding I’ve been requesting for over 2 decades. It’s just sad these people are losing their lives for this. I promise I will help any way I can once my company gets up and running. My heart goes out to them and http://nunleymotorcraftsltd.myevent.com I thank you all for your service.

  5. Everyone can act, actually – simply buy a Fairphone instead of a Samsung, Iphone, Huawei and so on. Ok it’s a bit more expensive. But it lasts longer and, above all, it’s a fair phone, literally…..

    • Can you elaborate on how the purchase of a Fairphone can help eliviate the exploitation of the DRC mine workers?

  6. and by the way, the exploitation in Cobalt mines is only one aspect of phone-related exploitation. Please do not focus only on exploitation of black people. The people who die to make your cellphone are not only the black guys in the mines in Africa, they are also the people in Asia who die to manufacture them. A whole chain of exploitation that each one of us, by buying fair products, can help stopping.

  7. What I understand from this video is that CDM does not employ these miners. These miners having found the cobalt, go into the mine at their own risk, probably because they don’t have jobs and want to earn money, sell the cobalt to CDM. Just like a buyer-seller relationship where when you have a product you sell it to anyone who could buy it. We could blame CDM if they employ these miners, contractually or permanently or if this mine is owned by CDM.

  8. The western capitalists will pay for this one day when the Africans will politely invite them to their continent and then slaughter them and throw their bodies into the same mines

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