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Article

8 Nov 2021

Author:
Pete Pattisson, The Guardian

DRC: Workers mining Cobalt for electric vehicles report abuse, low wages & racial discrimination

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Allegations

"‘Like slave and master’: DRC miners toil for 30p an hour to fuel electric cars", 8 November 2021

...Pierre is mining for cobalt...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...

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...

Pierre...is employed, via a subcontractor, at Tenke Fungurume mine (TFM)... which is 80% owned by the Chinese company China Molybdenum(CMOC).

...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...

... all...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.

...Congolese workers... 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...

...workers...said they deeply resented the way they were treated, but felt powerless to protest...

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...

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.

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.

...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... Glencore...

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.

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...

When the pandemic started, many [Congo Dongfang International Mining (CDM)] workers were confined to the mine for three months until the Congolese government compelled the company to release them.

...some 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.

CDM is wholly owned by Huayou Cobalt...

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...

“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.”

Part of the following timelines

DRC: Subcontracted workers on Cobalt mines supplying electric vehicle manufacturers report discrimination, abuse, low wages & precarious working conditions; incl co. comments

DR Congo: Electric vehicles, energy transition and Chinese investment in cobalt and copper