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‘Like slave and master’: DRC miners toil for 30p an hour to fuel electric cars


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‘Like slave and master’: DRC miners toil for...

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Pete Pattisson in Kolwezi

Last modified on Mon 8 Nov 2021 20.07 GMT

The names Tesla, Renault and Volvo mean nothing to Pierre*. He has never heard of an electric car. But as he heads out to work each morning in the bustling, dusty town of Fungurume, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s southern mining belt, he is the first link in a supply chain that is fuelling the electric vehicle revolution and its promise of a decarbonised future.

Pierre is mining for cobalt, one of the world’s most sought-after minerals, and a key ingredient in the batteries that power most electric vehicles (EVs).

He says his basic wage is the equivalent of £2.60 ($3.50) a day, but if he works through lunch and puts in hours of overtime, he can make up to about £3.70. Not that lunch is worth waiting for: he claims he is given just two small bread rolls and a carton of juice.

“The salary is very, very small. It gives me a headache … The mine makes so much and we make so little,” he says.

If he takes a day off, he says money is deducted from his wages. If he is sick and misses more than two days in a month, more money is cut. “You can’t even argue. If you do, you’ll be fired,” he says, squatting on the dirt floor of the bare brick shack he rents.

“The relationship between us and the [mine] is like a slave and a master,” says Pierre.

Stories of the harsh and dangerous working conditions endured by miners in the DRC’s informal, or artisanal, cobalt mines – of child labour and miners being buried alive as tunnels cave in – have provoked an international outcry in recent years, forcing the western technology and automotive brands that rely on the mineral to look for ways to source “clean” cobalt, free from human rights abuses.

Some companies in the cobalt supply chain have promised to stop sourcing from artisanal mines and instead get the mineral from large-scale industrial mines, which are seen as a safer option both for workers and corporate reputations.

"At lunch I’m given two bread rolls,’ claims a miner working at an industrial mine in the DRC.
‘At lunch I’m given two bread rolls,’ claims a miner working at an industrial mine in the DRC. Photograph: Pete Pattisson

Pierre is not working at an artisanal mine, however. He is employed, via a subcontractor, at Tenke Fungurume mine (TFM), one of the country’s biggest industrial mines, which is 80% owned by the Chinese company China Molybdenum(CMOC).

An investigation by the Guardian has found that some workers, often employed through subcontractors, allege they are victims of severe exploitation, including wages as low as 30p an hour, precarious employment with no contracts, and paltry food rations. In a number of mines run by Chinese companies, workers made allegations of discrimination and racism reminiscent of the colonial era.

The Guardian has tracked the cobalt supply chain from TFM and other industrial mines through a number of refiners and battery makers to some of the world’s leading electric car manufacturers, including Tesla, VW, Volvo, Renault and Mercedes-Benz .

While the cobalt supply chain is highly complex, all these car manufacturers identified by the Guardian can be linked to one or more of the industrial mines named by the Guardian through a small number of key refineries and battery makers.

Many EV brands have made public commitments to “responsible sourcing” of minerals, and some – notably Tesla – are using innovative ways to achieve this. Nevertheless, the Guardian’s findings suggest how far the sector still has to go to ensure the shift to clean energy is not tainted by claims of workers’ rights abuses.

As delegates meet at Cop26, the UN climate change conference in Glasgow, the transition from petrol to EVs is being talked about as a key step in reducing carbon emissions. Global sales of passenger EVs – excluding hybrids – are expected to soar from 3.3m in 2021 to 66m in 2040. In the UK, that growth will be driven by the government’s ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2030.

Last year, about 70% of the world’s cobalt came from the DRC and the vast majority of that – 93,000 out of 100,000 tonnes, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence (BMI) – came from large-scale industrial mines.

Although some battery and car manufacturers have reduced the amount of cobalt in their batteries, BMI says the volume of sales of cobalt into the sector will rise four or fivefold over the coming decade. The World Bank estimates that demand for cobalt production will increase 585% by 2050.

One of the vast mine craters in Kolwezi, the DRC’s cobalt capital.
One of the vast mines in Kolwezi, the DRC’s cobalt capital. Photograph: Pete Pattisson

That should be good news for people in southern DRC, where the majority of the cobalt mines are located, but a report launched today by UK-based corporate watchdog Raid and Congolese lawyers from the Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire, says many multinational mining companies – and the subcontractors they hire – create poorly paid jobs that keep workers in poverty.

“Cobalt is an essential mineral for the green transition, but we must not turn away from the abusive labour conditions that taint the lithium-ion batteries needed for millions of electric vehicles,” said Raid director Anneke Van Woudenberg

Kolwezi is the DRC’s cobalt capital, a city so defined by mining that some communities sit on the rim of the giant craters that have been excavated in search of copper and cobalt. It is mining on a massive scale, highly mechanised and dependent on cutting-edge technology but powered by thousands of workers – more than 10,000 at TFM – who, like Pierre, are employed as mineral processors, drivers, mechanics, welders, security guards and general workers.

In the last 15 years, Chinese companies have begun to enter the mining business, buying out North American and European companies so that they now control the majority of the cobalt and copper mines in southern DRC. And with this change, Congolese workers say, has come abuse, discrimination and racism. They say they are insulted, in some cases beaten, and claim they are paid less than Chinese workers who do the same job. They allege that Chinese supervisors disregard their experience and put production before safety.

“We’re being treated in a very bad way by the Chinese. I’m a victim of assault myself. I was slapped across the face four times,” says Mutamba, another worker at TFM.

One Congolese worker at TFM described sitting through a two-hour meeting in Chinese, only to be given a two-minute translation at the end.

“We feel humiliated and embarrassed,” he says. “The way they are treating our people, you can’t believe. We are just expecting them to have respect for human life, instead of using people like slaves.”

Q&A

What did companies say in response to our investigation ? Responses in full

Show

Tenke
Fungurume Mine / CMOC

CMOC is committed to
“establishing fair employment practices and treating all
individuals with dignity and respect, with zero tolerance to all forms of
unlawful discrimination and harassment”. The Employment Policy
issued by the Company has clear
rules regarding this. We comply with the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and
Rights at Work and the eight fundamental Conventions of the
International Labour Organization, and
the laws and regulations in countries where we operate. We develop appropriate
regulations and preventative measures to ensure the elimination of
all forms of child labour, forced
labour, and violations of human rights or international humanitarian
law during the hiring process,
while employed, and at the end of employment. We also deliver the
same to oursuppliers and
monitor their compliance periodically.

We are devoted to
providing safe, healthy, and decent work environment to all employees
and attach great
importance to protecting the rights of employees. We value and
encourage localization as
shown by the 88% Congolese (including contractors) in our total work
force as of the second quarter
of 2021.

In terms of labor
relations, we are committed to observing ILO conventions and local
labor policies and laws
based on a fair employment framework. All employees are entitled with
rights of freedom of
association and collective bargaining. All DRC national employees are
members of unions. The
Collective Bargaining Agreement we signed with unions covers all
Congolese employees, the
content of which explicitly clarified working hours, salaries, and
benefits that are in line with market
standards and requirement by laws.

On HSE perspective,
TFM receives annual OHSAS 18001 independent audit to ensure safety performance.
Everyone in and out of the mine site, including our own employees and contractors’
employees, need to attend induction trainings to get onboard.
Induction trainings, including specific
modules on safety, human rights, and grievance hotline, are intended
to ensure that all employees
and contractors are equipped with necessary knowledge and skills and understand and
comply with the Zero Tolerance Rules of TFM. In this regard, we treat
our employees and
contractors equally, registering contractor performance as well in
our safety records. The
contracts signed with suppliers/contractors also encompass Supplier
Code of Conducts and other
ESG terms including on HSE, human rights, and community.

MOC values
communications with employees. The grievance systems of our global
business units are accessible
to all employees and contractors and welcome involvement and feedback from all employees.
TFM has a dedicated grievance system to record and resolve
stakeholders’ concerns and
compliance issues, including employees’ concerns regarding work
conditions, and will make
verifications on issues filed.

Due to absence of
details related to what you mentioned in your email, I’m not able
to verify, but to do
so, I’m open to any further information that you may provide. I
would like to stress that CMOC
manages its labor relations in line with established rules and
international standards. Let me
share with you a most recent demonstration of our practice: in the
MSCI ESG rating report
released in August 2021, CMOC is upgraded from BBB to A, a rating
that is among top tier of global
mining companies. This manifests that we have maintained high
international standards in areas
including protection of labor rights and interests, safety, health,
environmental protection, and
corporate governance.

Please note one
important fact: since CMOC took over, TFM has acted in strict
compliance with laws and regulations
and made significant contribution to fiscal revenue of the DRC and development of local
communities. From start of production to end of June 2021, TFM had contributed a total
of about USD3.48 billion to fiscal revenue of the DRC. Taxes paid and investment made in
the public sector by TFM is over 10% of total fiscal revenue of the
DRC, providing 10,462
local jobs and benefitting 21,150 local employees and their family
members with healthcare
services. TFM makes substantial investment in infrastructure,
livelihood, and economic development
of local communities every year since its start of production,
investing over USD300 million
in supporting utility projects and building public facilities
including roadways, schools, hospitals, and training centers. During
the same time, towns of Tenke and Fungurume where TFM is located
witnessed a growth of population from 30,000 to over 400,000 and had
developed into a medium-sized cities of prosperity and vitality.
Since acquisition completion in 2016, fiscal contribution to the DRC
government by TFM averaged USD400 million every year, way higher than
the USD130 million contribution when Freeport-McMoRan was shareholder
of the mine.

Glencore / KCC

Thank you for providing Glencore with the opportunity to respond to
allegations on working conditions at the Kamoto Copper Company (KCC)
in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC). Both Glencore and KCC
take these allegations very seriously.

Glencore’s
Code
of Conduct
reflects our Purpose and Values and sets out the key principles and
expectations for how our employees must behave in their day-to-day
activities. At Glencore, we all commit to the Code – regardless of
where we are or what we do. All of us are accountable for living up
to Glencore’s Values, incorporating the Code into our lives and
encouraging our colleagues to do the same.

KCC uses contractors
for specialist activities and for temporary work – it does not use
contractors for its core activities, which its direct employees carry
out. Its terms and conditions with its contractor companies align
with DRC’s labour legislation and set out clear expectations for
the treatment of workers. KCC has a dedicated enterprise development
program that is dedicated to contracting local Congolese businesses
and to support them in developing into a sustainable operation.

KCC monitors
compliance with the terms and conditions of its contracts and, when
made aware of concerns, its management raises these concerns with its
contractor companies’ management teams. In these cases, KCC works
with the contractor company to address concerns; however, in the
event that progress is insufficient, KCC will review and, if
appropriate, terminate the contract.

As an example, in
2021, KCC became aware that employees of a global contractor company,
whose contract ceased due to the reduction of project activities
during the Covid-19 pandemic, did not receive their wages to the end
of their employment term. In this instance, KCC engaged with the
contractor company, voiced its concerns and the employees received
the correct payment. Similarly, this month, contractors demonstrated
at KCC on discrepancies in wages paid for similar jobs. In this
instance, KCC spoke with the contractor company to understand better
the issues and to encourage engagement between the management team
and its workers. The management team subsequently addressed the
discrepancies.

KCC provides food
and water to all its direct employees and to certain contractors,
depending on the agreement with the specific contractor company. KCC
completes in-field verification reviews to ensure adequate supply and
quantities when the contractor is responsible for issuing water to
their workforce. In all cases, KCC will provide water to any employee
or contractor on an as required basis.

KCC
investigates the concerns that it receives. We encourage you to
provide further details on the allegations you have received
– this
will support our internal investigation processes and enable, if
needed, the implementation of correction measures.

Background:

Supporting
local employment and procurement

Our
Social
Performance Policy
states our commitment to support economic development through
providing local employment, procurement and contracting opportunities
to local enterprises.

Glencore
sets out its approach to responsible sourcing and supply in our
annual Sustainability Report, in ourSupplier
Standardsand
on our website.
Glencore’s Supplier Standards set out our expectations for ethical
business practices, safety, health, human rights and environmental
stewardship for all of our suppliers. Our Supplier Standards apply to
any individual, organisation or company that provides, sells or
leases materials directly to Glencore companies, including goods and
services. These also apply to KCC’s suppliers. The Supplier
Standards also form the base of our risk-based supply chain due
diligence programme, which aligns with the Organization of Economic
Cooperation and Development’s Due Diligence Guidance for
Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and
High-Risk Areas

KCC’s
Enterprise Development Process works across its procurement programme
to support, encourage and engage Congolese-owned businesses,
including labour. KCC’s supplier agreements and contracts include
standard terms and conditions on the requirement for robust health
and safety management programmes, upholding respect for human rights,
the prevention of child labour, good working conditions and fair
salaries.

In
addition, in 2020, KCC successfully participated in the Responsible
Minerals Initiative’s (RMI) pilot audit programme for its
Responsible Minerals Assurance Process. Supplier due diligence was a
core part of this third-party assessment. The report on this
assessment is available on our website.
It should also be noted that KCC is the only mining operation in
Africa to receive RMI certification for the 2020-21 period.

Fair
pay and strong union representation

Glencore’s
Equality
of Opportunity Policy
requires our assets to provide fair and equitable conditions of
employment to their employees, in line with local requirements. We
believe in the principle of equal pay for work of equal value and
contribution.

We
provide all employees with equal access to pay calculations and
transparency of pay in line with their agreed and lawful terms and
conditions of employment for work performed in line with global
standards and local requirements. We provide employees with access to
absence, redundancy, and retirement provision in accordance with
local standards.

KCC
has established salary banding that is based on the skills required
for the work performed. All of KCC’s employees are paid above the
DRC’s minimum wage and receive additional benefits and allowances,
including but not limited to medical support, meals, school fees,
housing allowance, family allowance, leave absence payment (in
addition to labour law leave requirement).

KCC’s
standard terms of engagement for its contractors stipulates
conditions in line with DRC legislation and fair remuneration.

 All
of our assets, including KCC, recognise and uphold the rights of
their workforces to freedom of association and collective
representation. “Respect workforce rights to lawful freedom of
association and collective bargaining” is in KCC’s contract terms
and conditions with its service providers. At KCC, 96% of its
employees belong to a union and the KCC team meets regularly with
union representatives.

Huayou
Cobalt / CDM

CDM
strictly abides by DRC laws and regulations, we respect human rights
and fulfil best labor practice.

1.
All the workers of our company are directly recruited through formal
recruitment channels. We have never recruited workers through
sub-contractors or third parties.

2.
The company’s way to calculate the payroll fully conforms to the
requirements of local laws, and the wages of general employees are
much higher than the local minimum wage standard.

3.
The company signs formal employment contracts with employees in
accordance with local labour laws.

4.
At the start of Covid outbreak, the DRC government did not put
forward a clear policy and guidance on Covid pandemic prevention and
control, in order to protect the employees’ life and health, the
company immediately established Employee Protection Proposal
referring to the effective prevention measures of PRC and other
mining enterprises’ Covid pandemic prevention practices, and
combining local actual situation of DRC, we adopted a policy of
healthy and safe operation, implementing disinfection of the facility
to ensure that workers work in a safe and virus-free environment.
Later, our company made relevant adjustments accordingly after the
DRC government put forward relevant Covid pandemic prevention
policies.

5.
Since the establishment of our factory, we have made a lot of
contributions to the surrounding communities. Every year, we spend a
lot of money on the community. At the same time, we organized
villagers to carry out agricultural planting training, agricultural
education and farming, and cooperated with Non-Governmental
organizations to conduct free consultations for villagers. During the
Covid pandemic, we also made pandemic prevention speeches to
villagers, and donated pandemic prevention materials, masks, alcohol
and gloves to villagers for many times.

As for the
allegations mentioned in the e-mail, much of the information received
by the Guardian is not in accordance with the actual situation, which
will have a negative impact on our company. We hope the Guardian can
collect information in a more precise, careful, discerning and
responsible manner, and then provide a convincing report.

Renault

Following
you request, please find below Renault’s responses regarding the
questions you have raised.

  • Testimonies
    presented in the upcoming article by the Guardian have retained
    Renault Group’s full attention. Renault Group firmly condemns the
    practices described in the upcoming article.
  • Such
    testimonies confirm the urgent need to mobilize industrial sectors
    dependent on minerals to ensure a responsible purchasing supply
    chain.
  • Renault
    Group works with its suppliers to ensure their respect in the
    application of human and labour rights. For example, on the electric
    battery sector, Renault mandated in 2019 a specialist audit firm to
    fulfill a comprehensive cobalt supply chain mapping with its sole
    EV-battery supplier, LG Chem (more information on Renault Group’s
    website) and to conduct audits at each level of the supply chain.
  • Renault
    Group operates in accordance with applicable laws and is strongly
    committed to respecting human and labour rights. These elements are
    reflected in the responsible purchasing policy
    (https://www.renaultgroup.com/en/our-commitments/for-a-shared-ethics/sustainable-purchasing/
    promoted
    within our Group and with our suppliers as part of the commitments
    requested of them.
  • In
    the last 12 months, Renault Group has reinforced his commitment to
    sustainable sourcing by contracting with Vulcan for Lithium for
    example. We assure you of our will to continue and intensify the
    actions already implemented by our teams in these different areas.

Volvo

The
allegations put forward by the Guardian are serious. We are not aware
of these issues taking place in our supply chain. Volvo Cars places
strict sustainability requirements on our business partners, and has
measures in place to both secure responsibly sourced cobalt for our
batteries and improve the situation on the ground for mine workers in
the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

VW

These
are serious allegations, many of which would also violate our Code of
Conduct for Business Partners. We are currently considering the
opening of a Grievance case based on these information.

We
are requesting from our direct suppliers and their supply chains to
disclose the upstream supply chain and to rule out the possibility of
any human rights violations as per the OECD guideline’s procedure.

Obligatory
sustainability rating for all direct suppliers ensure that human
rights, environmental and corruption risks can be promptly identified
and ruled out. The basis for that are documents that every supplier
must submit to us and on-site checks, if needed.

On
the issue of responsible cobalt supply chain for our batteries we use
the following approach:

  • Cooperation
    with direct suppliers to ascertain the origin of cobalt in the
    supply chain.
  • Engagement
    of independent auditing service providers who examine all the
    information furnished by the direct suppliers – including on site.
  • Use
    of the results of audits to instigate improvements and ensure
    responsible sourcing practices across the supply chain.

Volkswagen
itself does not procure cobalt directly. Cobalt itself is purchased
by our suppliers for their business processes and products in a
supply chain that has up to 9 levels and in countries such as the DR
Congo. Parts of the Cobalt in VW Groups battery supply chains also
originates in the DR Congo.

We
are aware of the mining conditions in Congolese small-scale mining
and reject child labor or inadequate environmental or social welfare
standards in mining. We understand that small-scale mining in the DR
Congo represents a livelihood for many people. Without minimum
standards we cannot – not least for legal reasons – accept any
material from small-scale mines.

The
Volkswagen Group joined the “Cobalt for Development” project in
September 2020. Together with other partners from industry, we are
working to improve the working and living conditions of the local
population in the DR Congo.

Volkswagen
engages in improving working conditions in artisanal cobalt mines in
the Democratic Republic of Congo (volkswagenag.com)

In
regard to industrial mining production from the DRC we also look for
opportunities to increase the sustainability performance of the mines
in the far end of our supply chains. This is why we are addressing
this topic in our contractual requirements with our battery
suppliers, referencing international best practices and this is why
we are currently piloting a sustainability audit at one industrial
mine site in the DRC. Through this pilot project we want to better
understand the sustainability performance of the mines in high-risk
countries and we intend to trigger positive change on the ground
through corrective-action-plans for the assessed mine site.

We
work closely with our direct suppliers to identify the exact origin
of cobalt in the supply chain.  That is done using forensic
audits, in which we work with an external service provider to obtain
transparency right down to the source of the raw material. For
example, suppliers and subcontractors in our cobalt supply chain are
audited so as to ensure responsible practices throughout the supply
chain. In the event of irregularities – violation of our standards
(defined in the “Code of Conduct for Business Partners”) – we
take appropriate, quick and resolute action to ensure sustainability
in our supply chain.

We
report transparently and regularly on our activities in the field of
responsible procurement of battery raw materials such as cobalt in
the annual

Volkswagen_Group_Responsible_Raw_Materials_Report_2020.pdf
(volkswagenag.com) which
was published in 2021 for the first time.

Mercedes-Benz
/ Daimler

  • We
    take such indications very seriously and follow them up.
  • We
    are immediately contacting our suppliers to clarify these
    indications.
  • The
    respect for, and protection of, human rights are of fundamental
    importance to Daimler.
  • With
    our Principles
    of Social Responsibility and Human Rights,
    we commit to upholding and respecting human rights as laid out in
    the International Bill of Human Rights, the International Labor
    Organization’s Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and
    Rights at Work and the Guiding Principles on Business and Human
    Rights of the United Nations.
  • Our
    aim is to ensure that human rights are respected in all our Group
    companies, by our partners and by our suppliers.
  • As
    stated in our Business
    Partner Standards,
    we expect compliance with these principles also from our business
    partners, including labour standards such as fairness in pay,
    working hours and social benefits as well as free choice of
    employment. This applies also to suppliers, their employees and
    their subcontractors.
  • As
    we have more than 60,000 direct suppliers and numerous
    subcontractors, we have implemented several standards and measures
    to sustain our ethical standards in our supply chains.
  • Our
    goal is to make supply chains more transparent. This allows us to
    better identify human rights risks and to counteract them in
    cooperation with our suppliers.
  • With
    a supply contract with Mercedes-Benz, suppliers agree to create
    transparency in their supply chains in order to identify risk
    hotspots and potential human rights risks and to counteract them by
    taking appropriate action in accordance with the OECD guiding
    principles.
  • In
    order to improve the situation of local communities and strengthen
    their rights, we work together with suppliers and sub-suppliers and
    regularly consult with relevant external stakeholders, especially
    NGOs. In accordance with their feedback, we follow the principle of
    using leverage before withdrawing. That means, we deliberately do
    not exclude countries of origin viewed as high-risk as sources of
    supply in general but aim to improve the situation on site.
  • We
    are having cobalt supply chains of battery cell suppliers audited by
    a third party. The external auditing firm RCS Global is auditing all
    stages of the supply chain in accordance with OECD Guiding
    principles and is also conducting rights holder interviews. The
    audits cover aspects such as child labour, modern slavery,
    occupational health and safety and health measures, material control
    as well as existing due diligence systems. Where necessary,
    corrective measures were agreed with suppliers by means of
    individual “Corrective Action Plans”. Depending on the
    respective measure, suppliers are given different deadlines for
    implementation. We are constantly monitoring the implementation of
    the measures. The program includes also supplier trainings and
    re-audits in order to increase their capacity on the one hand, and
    monitor improvement of supplier performance over time on the other
    hand.
  • The
    aim of this corrective action and regular monitoring is to ensure
    that a continuous improvement process takes place in the supply
    chain. In individual cases – for example in the event of
    non-compliance with the Corrective Action Plans or in case of a
    critical breach – the business relationship with the respective
    facility may also be terminated.
  • In
    one example, a health and safety risk was identified at one audited
    mine. To resolve the problem, the company at the next higher stage
    of the supply chain was contacted in order to identify possible
    solutions, and both companies were offered training courses and to
    respond to requests to monitor the implementation of the corrective
    measures. Due to the lack of response, the supply relationship with
    the mine concerned has been suspended and will only be resumed once
    the situation improves. Mercedes-Benz remains in contact with the
    sub-supplier.
  • We
    are aware, that audits can only show a momentary insight and have to
    be accompanied by other measures.
  • In
    order to ensure the responsible and sustainable extraction of cobalt
    in the long term, we will instruct our suppliers to only source
    cobalt from IRMA audited mining sites in the future. To this end, we
    make the IRMA standard for responsible mining a key criterion for
    supplier decisions and contracts in raw material supply chains. In
    doing so, in addition to the risk of child labor, environmental
    risks in the mining of raw materials can be minimized. Further
    details can be found here.
  • Daimler
    has been investing in resource-efficient technologies and
    manufacturing processes for batteries for years. They will lead to a
    further increase in energy density, so that more energy can be
    stored at the same volume. Finally, the material composition of
    lithium-ion battery cells will change. The current mixture of
    nickel, manganese and cobalt could soon be outdated, as cobalt is to
    be largely replaced by nickel in the long-term. In the battery of
    the EQS, the cobalt content is already reduced to around ten
    percent. In the future, we want to use post-lithium-ion technologies
    with new material compositions to completely dispense with materials
    such as cobalt.
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Over the course of the investigation, workers interviewed by the Guardian said they deeply resented the way they were treated, but felt powerless to protest. “It’s a shocking situation, but I can’t leave the job because there is no other choice,” says one. “Where can I get another job?”

A spokesperson for CMOC, which majority owns TFM, said the company adheres to a number of international labour conventions and local labour laws. Since it acquired the mine in 2016, CMOC said it has contributed an average of £296m a year to the country’s revenue. “We are devoted to providing a safe, healthy and decent work environment to all employees and attach great importance to protecting the rights of employees,” the spokesperson said.

Mining for cobalt and copper is a vital source of income for DRC’s government and creates tens of thousands of jobs – with good wages for many – in a region with few other employment opportunities. But in some mines the majority of workers – almost 70% at TFM, for example – are hired through sub-contractors.

The use of subcontractors can leave workers in an extremely precarious position: often hired on short-term contracts, or no contract at all, with limited benefits, low pay and the threat of termination always hanging over them.

The outskirts of Kolwezi. Some communities sit right on the rim of the craters made by the mines.
The outskirts of Kolwezi. Some communities sit right on the rim of the craters made by the mines. Photograph: Pete Pattisson

Josué Kashal, a lawyer for Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire, a local organisation that represents miners, says the use of subcontractors can lead to the big mines being able to avoid accountability.

In his small office in Kolwezi, Kashal shows the Guardian a list of what he claims are more than 50 subcontractors that have been used by the Kamoto Copper Company (KCC) mine, which is owned by the Swiss commodities and mining giant Glencore.

“Glencore is using many subcontracted workers, so employees depend on the subcontractor, not Glencore. This way they don’t have responsibility and can end a contract at any time,” says Kashal.

Human rights activist ‘forced to flee DRC’ over child cobalt mining lawsuit

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While some workers said they hoped to get hired directly by KCC, saying it offered better wages than other mines, 44% of KCC’s workers are employed through sub-contractors. The price is paid by men like Luc. “I started on £80 a month while working as a security guard at KCC. Then KCC terminated the contract with the subcontractor and I suddenly lost my job, along with 600 other guards,” he says.

Luc was recently rehired by another security firm at the mine, but says he is still earning less than £140 a month. “The main companies are treating the subcontractors well, but the subcontractors don’t treat workers well. The mining companies are benefitting a lot, not the local people,” he says.

Glencore said KCC only uses sub-contractors for specialist work or temporary contracts and monitors compliance with the terms of its contracts. “In 2021, KCC became aware that employees of a global contractor company, whose contract ceased due to the reduction of project activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, did not receive their wages to the end of their employment term. In this instance, KCC engaged with the contractor … and the employees received the correct payment,” a spokesperson said.

Kawama is within view of the CDM mine and refinery, but local people say CDM has not contributed anything to the community.
Kawama is within view of the CDM mine and refinery, but local people say CDM has contributed almost nothing to the community. Photograph: Pete Pattisson

In June 2020, Tesla signed a long-term deal to source cobalt from Glencore for its new “giga-factories” in Berlin and Shanghai. Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in its latest impact report, the company says it procures cobalt only from producers in the DRC that meet its responsible sourcing standards. To avoid its material being “contaminated” by cobalt from other sources as it passes along the supply chain, it is “stored in clearly marked, segregated areas of the plant and is toll processed on lines dedicated for Tesla”, the report says. Two mineral experts told the Guardian this process is likely to be rigorous.

Covid has compounded the already poor labour conditions endured by many workers. The community of Kawama stretches along one side of the main road south of Lubumbashi. On the other side stands the Congo Dongfang International Mining (CDM) mine and refinery.

When the pandemic started, many CDM workers were confined to the mine for three months until the Congolese government compelled the company to release them. Koffi, who worked at the mine as a security guard, told the Guardian he shared a hall with 80 others, with two workers sharing a mattress laid on a wooden board and propped up on bricks. “I felt like a prisoner. I didn’t have any freedom,” he says.

In interviews with the Guardian, some CDM workers say they are employed for as little as £88 a month. “Payslips” seen by the Guardian were written only in Chinese on a pencil-thin strip of paper.

The bare, brick shack where a worker for one of the large industrial mines lives. He earns about £3.60 a day.
The bare, brick shack where a worker for one of the large industrial mines lives. He earns about £3.60 a day. Photograph: Pete Pattisson

CDM is wholly owned by Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese conglomerate with interests in every step of the cobalt supply chain, from mining to cathode production. Renault and Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, name CDM among their suppliers.

Huayou Cobalt said CDM “adopted a policy of healthy and safe operation” at the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic until the government put forward its own pandemic prevention policies. It said all workers were paid in line with local labour laws. CDM has made significant contributions to the local community, Huayou Cobalt said, including organising agricultural education, building and renovating schools, setting up medical clinics and providing water and electricity to local villages.

But there appears to be little sign of that in Kawama, a collection of red brick shacks with corrugated iron roofs held down by rocks. A woman heaves a bicycle laden with yellow water drums along a dry dirt track, a young boy helping to push from behind.

“There is no drinking water, no electricity, no school, no healthcare,” claims Koffi. “Our community is right next to CDM, but they don’t do anything for us.”

*All names have been changed

Topics

  • Africa
  • Battery life
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Mining
  • Human rights
  • features
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Congolese workers describe a system of abuse, precarious employment and paltry wages – all to power the green vehicle revolution

The names Tesla, Renault and Volvo mean nothing to Pierre*. He has never heard of an electric car. But as he heads out to work each morning in the bustling, dusty town of Fungurume, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s southern mining belt, he is the first link in a supply chain that is fuelling the electric vehicle revolution and its promise of a decarbonised future.

Pierre is mining for cobalt, one of the world’s most sought-after minerals, and a key ingredient in the batteries that power most electric vehicles (EVs).

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