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COBALT: what is it, where does it come from & why do we need it?

Cobalt is a chemical element with the symbol Co and atomic number 27. Cobalt  is found in the earth's crust. Cobalt is generally found in a dark grey rock known as heterogenite.

More than 50% of the world's cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo: 20% of this cobalt is informally mined by children and artisanal miners. It is estimated that there are 110,000 to 150,000 artisanal miners, including children, in southern DR Congo, who work alongside much larger industrial operations.

Cobalt is needed to make rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power most electronic devices, such as smartphones, laptops, electric cars etc. Cobalt is also contained in super alloys used in jet engines.


COBALT MINING: The difference between industrial and artisanal mining.

Industrial mining is organised and uses machines and equipment, including safety equipment.

[Image copyright Bloomberg]

Artisanal mining is unofficial and widely understood to mean “mining by hand" with little to no safety equipment or guarantee of fair payment for the cobalt they mine. There are men, women and children working in artisanal mines in slave-like conditions.

Whereas industrial miners earn a wage, artisanal miners have to trade the cobalt with agents, who then sell it on. Artisanal miners have no guarantee of receiving a fair price for their cobalt, or even of finding cobalt to sell on.

Artisanal mining became a source of livelihood for many people when the largest state owned mining company collapsed in the 1990s. It is driven by poverty and desperation.


COBALT MINING: What are the health hazards?

Mining cobalt is extremely dangerous and hazardous to health.

Chronic exposure to dust containing cobalt can result in a potentially fatal lung disease, called “hard metal lung disease.” Inhalation of cobalt particles can also cause “respiratory sensitization, asthma, shortness of breath, and decreased pulmonary function”, and sustained skin contact with cobalt can lead to dermatitis. Yet researchers found that the vast majority of miners, who spend long hours every day working with cobalt, do not have the most basic of protective equipment, such as gloves, work clothes or facemasks. The DRC Mining Code (2002) and Regulations (2003) provide no guidance for artisanal miners on safety equipment or how to handle substances which may pose a danger to human health, apart from mercury.

Report: This is what we die for. Amnesty International, 2016.

Malnourished children carry sacks of earth weighing more than they do which gives rise to muscular and skeletal pain and injury.

Unofficial mines have no proper equipment. Tunnels are unsupported and often collapse resulting in injury and death.


APPLE iPHONE: How long would it take for a child miner to afford one?

The cost of an iPhone 11 is from £729


Children in artisanal Congolese cobalt mines earn, at best, $2 a day, working 12 hour shifts. Many children earn much less. Richard and Dorsen, for example, were earning around 8 pence a day.

At current exchange rates, $2 US dollars = £1.62 pound sterling.

A child miner would have to work every day, consistently earning $2 a day, for 450 days, which is 1.23 years, which equals 5,400 hours, to earn £729 to buy the cheapest iPhone.


HUMAN RIGHTS: Should abuses take place at all?

No. Amnesty International states: International human rights law states countries have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by all actors, including businesses. Amongst other things, this requires governments to enact and enforce laws that require businesses to respect human rights, create a regulatory environment that facilitates business respect for human rights, and provide guidance to companies on their responsibilities.

UNICEF have defined the universal Rights of the Child

Article 28 (right to education) Every child has the right to an education. Primary education must be free and different forms of secondary education must be available to every child. Discipline in schools must respect children’s dignity and their rights. Richer countries must help poorer countries achieve this.

Article 39 (recovery from trauma and reintegration) Children who have experienced neglect, abuse, exploitation, torture or who are victims of war must receive special support to help them recover their health, dignity, self-respect and social life.

Link to: The UN Convention of the Rights of a Child.


MEET TIM COOK: CEO of Apple, who profits from cobalt.

EARNINGS: 2018: base salary of $3 million along with $12 million in incentives awarded for performance-based reasons, and another $682,000 in unspecified "Other Compensation."


CHILD COBALT MINERS: The why, what and how of child cobalt miners.

Child labour is illegal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it's not enforced. Children work in mines either to survive for themselves, or the help their families survive.

UNICEF estimated in 2014 that approximately 40,000 boys and girls work in all the mines across southern DRC, many of them involved in cobalt mining.

Children without schooling work up to 12 hours, or longer, a day, all year round, to earn between one and two dollars a day. Children who go to school work 10 – 12 hours during the weekend and school holidays, and in the time before and after school. Child miners interviewed by Alex Crawford were earning 8 pence or less a day. [Sky News, February 2017]

The work is physically demanding. Children dig, carry heavy loads, and sift through the earth for cobalt which is sorted, washed, crushed and transported by the sack to traders. The children have no way of independently verifying the weight of the sacks or the grade of the ore, and accept what the traders pay them, making them susceptible to exploitation.

Children said that they had been beaten, or seen other children beaten, by security guards employed by mining companies when they trespassed on those companies’ mining concessions. Security guards also demanded money from them.

Paul, aged 14, started mining at the age of 12 and worked in tunnels underground. He told researchers he would often spend 24 hours down in the tunnels.

The work that children do in artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC is exhausting, hazardous, and likely to harm children’s health and safety.


HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES: Why do they take place in DR Congo?

The government fails the Congolese people.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has a lack of infrastructure and deep rooted corruption.The President, Joseph Kabila, is ineffective. (Pictured)

Although child labour is illegal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it's not enforced. Governmental agencies are doing next to nothing to regulate the safety and labour conditions in which the miners work. Officials from a range of different government and security agencies are corrupt, controlling access to unauthorized mining sites and demanding illegal payments from artisanal miners.

Poverty drives adults and children to work in artisanal mines where the conditions are hazardous to health and dangerous to life.


WORK VS SCHOOL? Why aren't Congolese children at school?

Abject poverty is so severe for thousands of children that they must work to survive.

[Richard and Dorsen working a 12 hour shift in a cobalt mine. When this image was captured by Sky News, the boys hadn't eaten for 2 days.]

The DRC Child Protection Code (2009), provides for free and compulsory primary education for all children. However, because of a lack of adequate funding from the state, most schools still charge parents a monthly amount to cover costs, such as teacher salaries, uniforms and learning materials.

In Kolwezi, NGO staff told researchers, this amount varies between 10,000 - 30,000 Congolese Francs (US$10-30) per month, which is more than many can afford.

[Richard and Dorsen, going to school after the intervention by Sky News and Kimbilio.]


AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: The report on artisanal cobalt mining in DR Congo

Mark Dummett, Amnesty International:

Companies have a responsibility to mitigate and take corrective measures for the victims if they have failed to respect human rights at any point during their operations... If human rights abuses have occurred at any point in the supply chain, the company must, in cooperation with other relevant actors, such as its suppliers and national authorities, take action to remediate the harm suffered by the people affected.



Artisanal miners dig shafts and tunnels with the use of chisels, mallets and other hand tools.They fill sacks with the ore, which are then tied to ropes and pulled by hand out of the mine shafts, which can be tens of metres deep. These miners are mainly men. The work is extremely hazardous to health and dangerous to life.

[Dorsen's father, Yassant, working underground.]

Cobalt is also found nearer the surface. Men, women and children collect stones that lie on or near the surface. They are washed, sifted and sorted in streams and lakes close to the mines. Many women and children are involved in washing and sorting the ore. This work is also extremely physical, harzardous and dangerous.

It is difficult to estimate the ruinous health consequences and death toll of artisanal cobalt mining due to lack of health care and unrecorded accidents where bodies remain underground.

TIM COOK and SATNYA NADELLA: Please charge us, the consumer, a fair trade fee to right these wrongs.

We could wait for governments to get their act together to stop the human rights abuses and child slave labour in artisanal cobalt mines - but until that happens they will suffer and die.

Artisanal and child cobalt miners need the money that's due to them.

Every time a smartphone, a laptop, a digital camera, an electric car is sold, (or other items with lithium ion rechargeable batteries containing cobalt sourced in DR Congo) we should pay a fair trade fee to free children from cobalt mines, to support the welfare of artisanal miners, and to pay towards the reparation of harm done, as Amnesty International advises.

This Sky News film shows how children's lives can change with intervention.

You could donate now to a charity helping vulnerable children in DR Congo.


WHAT TIM COOK SAYS in response to human rights violations in the cobalt mining industry.

Apple, states it has  "led the industry in establishing the strictest standards"

Has it? You decide...

We continue to partner with independent third-party auditors to review documents, interview management and line operators, and perform onsite inspections. These include underage workers or involuntary labor, document falsification, intimidation of or retaliation against workers, and egregious environmental and safety risks. We expect our suppliers to show steady improvement. 

If year-over-year improvement is not demonstrated by a low-performing supplier, they risk losing our business.

[Apple Supplier Responsibility. 2017 Progress Report, page 4]


FACT: Children cannot eat words, statements or policy. Children need actual food.

Yassant, Dorsen's father, explaining poverty: "We have to find minerals. If I found lots I could send him to school but we never have any money."

Dorsen: "I spend a lot of nights without eating anything."


CONGO CHILDREN TRUST, a charity saving street children in DR Congo

Congo Children Trust is a UK registered charity number: 1121048. Office address: Congo Children Trust, St Margaret’s Centre, Brantingham Road, Manchester, M21 0TT

The charity's mission is to: "improve the quality of life for children living on the streets in the Democratic Republic of Congo."

The Congo Children Trust's main project is Kimbilio, which receives 98% of the funding raised by the Trust. The Congo Children Trust has no paid members of staff in the UK; all are unpaid volunteers, including a team who sew Congolese fabric to sell at craft fairs.

Kimbilio, set up in 2009, runs a day centre and four homes for street children in Lubumbashi and seeks to reunite children with their families.

It is estimated that there are 250,000 children living on the streets in D.R.Congo. Children find themselves homeless through a number of factors including accusations of witchcraft, poverty, a death of one/both parents due to HIV/AIDS or malaria, extended family being unable to support the child, and parental separation. Whilst living on the street the children are exposed to daily violence, sexual, physical and emotional abuse. The street children lack secure access to their basic needs such as food and shelter.

Donate to Congo Children Trust


Despite being rich in minerals, DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world and has suffered from decades of war and poor governance.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has a lack of infrastructure and deep rooted corruption. Over half of the population lives in dire poverty.

Capital: Kinshasa
Main languages: French (official), Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili, Tshiluba
Main religions: Christianity, Islam
Life expectancy: 49 (WHO, 2011)
Literacy Rate: Adult [15+] 67%, Youth [15-24] 65% (UNESCO, 2010)
Child mortality: 168 children in every 1,000 likely to die before 5 years (WHO, 2011)
Child nutrition: 24.2% of children below 5 years underweight (WHO, 2012)
Poverty: Around 55% of people live on less than a dollar each day.
Work: DR Congo earns most of its revenues from mining minerals such as copper and cobalt.
Education: Less than a third of children in the DRC attend secondary school. Most schools are not free which means poor children often get no education.




Please refer to Amnesty International's comprehensive report, This is what we die for.

Amnesty International Report: This is what we die for. Amnesty International, 2016.

Please refer to Sky News reports on Cobalt Mining in DR Congo by Alex Crawford and team.

You Tube: Sky News, child cobalt miners

For more information on Congo Children Trust which runs the project Kimbilio, please refer to


Our friends

Congo Children's Trust: Kimbilio
Good Shepherd Sisters, Kolwezi
Amnesty International
Sky News
Alex Crawford, Sky News reporter


Update on Richard and Dorsen
Films about cobalt mining


Site edited by Flinty Maguire
Content includes images and film copyright: Sky News, & Congo Children Trust