Coltan is one of the world’s most vital minerals. It is used in cellphones, laptops and other devices because of its ability to store and release electrical energy. Sixty percent of the world’s coltan reserves are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) Kivu province. In 2019, 40% of the global coltan supply was produced in the DRC.
As 5G technology rapidly grows, the demand for Congolese coltan will increase. However, much of the country’s coltan is extracted using the labour of over 40 000 children and teenage miners. Coming from remote villages and towns in the Kivu region, these children either have never had the opportunity to attend school or have dropped out. The informality of the extractive sector provides alluring employment opportunities for vulnerable children, who serve as a pool of cheap labour to be hired for mining activities.
Children work as washers and diggers in dangerous working conditions. They also engage in petty smuggling and sell coltan for a pittance once they escape with it out of the DRC to towns along the borders with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.
Doing adults’ work in a hazardous environment, many child miners face the risks of ill health, harassment and abuse. Young artisans, mostly under 18, from the villages near Goma in North Kivu who work in coltan mining face severe occupational hazards. Radon, a radioactive substance associated with coltan, has been linked to lung cancer, and these child miners interact daily with the mineral without precautionary safeguards.
Faustin Kantanga, a civil society leader in Bukavu, told ENACT that coltan mining sites were rife with prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, rape and gender-based violence, all of which these children, particularly young girls, were exposed to. Those travelling long distances to smuggle coltan are also vulnerable to child traffickers and recruitment by armed groups.
The quantity of coltan mined through child labour remains unaccounted for, uncertified and untraceable. It is traded in the underground economy and funnelled into the coltan global supply chain through smuggling, counterfeiting and collusion.
The DRC government has taken some steps towards curtailing the use of child labour in the coltan mines through legislation and becoming a signatory to some of the certification standards in the extractive sector. The Congolese government reformed the country’s mining code in 2017 to introduce penalties for using child labour in mines or selling ore mined by children. In addition, based on national legislation and the need to meet supply chain standards, traceability and certification schemes have been adopted to address the problems associated with conflict minerals and child labour.
The Certification, Expertise and Evaluation Centre (CEEC) of precious and semi-precious mineral substances, established by the Congolese Ministry of Mines, is in charge of the traceability and certification of coltan. The CEEC is mandated to collaborate with international regulatory agencies across the value chain of coltan, from the mining sites to the commodity markets in Asia, Europe, and North America.
Notable international certification protocols on minerals processing to which the DRC is a signatory include the Regional Certification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme and the Dodd-Frank Act. They are also a signatory to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas and the Conflict Minerals Regulation.
However, major gaps remain a challenge in implementing the mineral certification schemes and enforcing the law regarding child labour in the mines and associated hazardous working conditions. While the schemes are complementary, they face serious feasibility challenges in the eastern DRC. Administrative capacity to ensure compliance is inadequate, and funding and staffing for the provincial mining departments responsible for carrying out timely monitoring exercises to check for evidence of child labour on mining sites are insufficient.
Miners and extractive companies have also found a way to circumvent the mineral certification protocols. Through fieldwork in the DRC, ENACT found that the occasional inspections of the mining sites by government agents and civil society organisations to ascertain conformity to certification standards were often undermined. State actors and embedded informants provide advanced notice of upcoming inspection visits to miners and extractive companies, giving them the opportunity to hide child miners and keep them far from the mining sites.
The United States Department of Labor also notes that mining site inspections aren’t carried out often enough in relation to law enforcement efforts to prevent child labour. The weak implementation of the certification schemes, repeated attempts to circumvent the regulatory frameworks and inadequate law enforcement present evidence of the opacity of the illicit economy of coltan mining and trading in the DRC. This casts doubt on the usefulness of these certification schemes.
A comprehensive approach and appropriate policies are urgently needed to address the prevalence of child labour in coltan mining and the associated health and developmental consequences. The Congolese government must constitute and fund an independent task force with a mandate to prosecute private and corporate businesses culpable of recruiting child miners. It should also incentivise the enrolment of vulnerable children in public school through ring-fenced funding and awareness campaigns. This could limit their recruitment into mining work.
Against the backdrop of child labour and coltan mining, the approach to mineral certification in the country needs a fresh look. International groups that can apply pressure on the extractive sectors must prioritise advocating for the harmonisation of the various certification schemes to achieve uniform application in the eastern DRC’s mineral-rich regions.
Development partners should provide funding support to train, equip and increase civil society organisation observatory groups at the local level to monitor, document and submit incident reports regarding child labour on coltan mining sites periodically. This would help to provide a shadow report to validate or invalidate certification audits carried out by state officials.
Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa