This is what it looks like in the Kaniola gold mine in the South Kivu region of Congo-Kinshasa. An example of very precarious working conditions. Photo: Enough Project. Source: Flickr.


The reverse of the green transition: Workers were buried in the cobalt mines

The mining of metals used in technology often leads to severe human rights violations. In Chinese-owned mines in the Congo, people work in dangerous conditions - in some cases they have been locked up and buried in the mines, according to Richard Mukena, head of human rights at the Afrewatch organization. Olof Björnsson, researcher at Swedwatch, believes that the risks of human rights violations increase together with the extraction of metals.

In the mining industry, there are major problems with dangerous working conditions and violations of human rights. These can be, for example, child labor, forced labor, increased conflicts and corruption, forced relocations and the destruction of indigenous areas. Among other things, the organizations have afrewatch, working mainly in Congo-Kinshasa, and Amnesty reported on.

- There is a difference between different mines and between industrial and small-scale mineral mining, says Richard Mukena, human rights manager at the organization Afrewatch, which works with human rights in connection with the extraction of natural resources.

Richard Ilunga Mukena is the head of human rights at the organization Afrewatch, which reports on the extraction of natural resources in Africa - mainly in Congo-Kinshasa. Photo: Elin Holm.

In the European-owned large-scale mines in Congo, there are often poor working conditions, long working days and a lack of social safety nets, but they are often safer and workers have at least contracts. It is generally worse in the Chinese-owned large-scale mines. Workers have lower wages, lack protective equipment and are therefore exposed to pollution and toxins. Day workers also work there - that is, people who are only employed and paid for one day at a time. It is an insecure supply. In small-scale mines, there is no regulation and there is not a single one where it is possible to extract cobalt without human rights violations, according to Richard Mukena.

In addition to the poor working conditions in large-scale mines, there are also problems with people coming in to try to steal cobalt and earn some extra money. This is because poverty is so widespread, but it leads to violent conflicts with security companies. People have been tortured and murdered by security guards.

- Imagine that these people go down into the mine tunnels, more than 50 meters down. But the responsible Chinese foreman comes and closes the hole with a load of earth. Those who have entered are trapped inside, then you come and pump hot water into the hole while they are still inside, says Richard Mukena.

He also talks about the situation of the miners during the pandemic. Some mines closed in on the workers. They were not allowed to come home or meet their families and in some places they were allowed to sleep on the ground. Even though they worked more than before, they did not get paid extra. There were workers who became infected with covid, died and were buried on the spot.

For those working in small-scale mines, the price of the minerals could be reduced to a quarter of the original, but they had to sell them to raise money. Richard Mukena says that Chinese buyers lowered prices, built up stocks and then sold cobalt at regular prices as society opened up more.

Batteries are needed for the green transition

We are increasingly using renewable electricity to power our vehicles, industries, mobile phones and computers. The battery company northvolt will start production in Europe's largest battery factory in Skellefteå. The company has also said that they are planning another factory of the same size.

All of these batteries require metals. Demand for so-called conversion metals such as cobalt, vanadium, lithium and graphite is increasing. The metals are found here in Sweden and could potentially be mined here, but the resistance to new mines is strong due to their feared impact on the local environment. Instead, the metals are imported and this means challenges for both the environment and the people who work with it.

- It is easy to export that problem elsewhere, says Olof Björnsson, researcher at the organization Swedwatch, who work around the world to review companies and whether they follow human rights and environmental guidelines. The organization focuses on countries and sectors where the risks are greatest.

Olof Björnsson is a researcher at Swedwatch and works, among other things, with corporate responsibility for operations in conflict zones. Photo: Amy Helene Johansson. Source: Swedwatch.
Major risks with increased mining

The increased demand for metals risks exacerbating the human rights problems that mainly affect Global South. But when production increases, there is a chance to ensure that the minerals needed for the green transition come from ethical sources, according to the environmental organization Earthworks. They believe that we need to recycle much more than today, but also work to ensure that the extraction is done in an ethical way. But it will be a big challenge, according to Olof Björnsson at Swedwatch.

- As the mining sector looks today, it is very problematic. The activities almost always involve violations of human rights and often have a major impact on the environment, he says.

Although there is potential in more extraction creating more jobs, it also involves great risks. He believes that this often leads to significantly more negative consequences than positive ones. In general, the pressure on land increases when we talk about green conversion. This may be because the land is needed for mines, solar cells, wind power or national parks. The initiatives are positive from an environmental point of view, but can lead to serious violations of human rights. Björnsson says that most activists who are murdered nowadays are those who try to protect land. 

Solutions from different sources

There are major problems with mineral extraction, but there is also a great deal of interest among consumers and companies to extract cobalt in an ethical way. Initiatives have been started to be able to track the metals better, but no changes have taken place in practice, according to Richard Mukena. He prefers that there should be open small-scale mines where anyone can mine the metal, have it tested in a lab and have the opportunity to sell it to various buyers to get a better price. Those who work could organize themselves in cooperatives for greater social security.

Olof Björnsson mentions a proposal at EU level for a law for "Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence ”, or “due diligence” in Swedish. This means that all companies must identify, prevent and manage risks and negative impacts on human rights in connection with their operations. Right now they are just guidelines, but that is not enough, he says.

- There is a picture that consumers should be able to choose, but it is impossible for them to make conscious decisions about the minerals. It is not reasonable that we sacrifice the human rights of some people to restructure the economy and secure the rights of others.

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