Author and expert on modern slavery, Siddharth Kara, exposes the treacherous living and working conditions of Congolese mining communities in Cobalt Red. He makes it clear that we cannot ignore the cruelty used to produce our everyday devices. Cobalt is essential to make rechargeable batteries for smartphones, tablets, laptops, and electric vehicles
Through heartbreaking testimonies and historical background, the author makes clear that the Congolese have long born the brunt of European and U.S. imperialism; more recently the land and its people have also been exploited by Chinese companies.
As the industry for mineral extraction has taken over the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.), families have been forced to risk their lives working in artisanal mines, that is, mines with very low levels of technology. To afford their basic necessities, miners have to dig and wash minerals containing copper, nickel, cobalt, and sometimes uranium with no protective gear. Workers, mostly male, mine underground with no air supply and are likely to die or be injured as tunnel collapses are common. It is often the case that working parents don’t get paid enough to support their families, so young children and teenagers who cannot afford school end up working in mines. Living conditions are not any better as communities face high exposure to lung and viral diseases due to production pollution, contaminated water, and overcrowded homes. Many turn to alcohol, drinking on the job to bear the threat of death. Women and girls working in mines are vulnerable to sexual assault and children risk being trafficked.
The mining companies are the direct beneficiaries of these horrendous conditions. To squeeze the most profit out of the working class, the industry uses police and private security; workers are shot or whipped if they are caught trying to take cobalt out of the mines. Protests against mines collapsing are violently repressed. Corporations feign being naïve of child labor within their operations, claiming that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are handling the issue. But the cobalt supply chain is structured so minerals mined by children in these mines inevitably are part of the product. Children’s labor is essential to this profiteering and capitalists are not willing to give it up. The rich benefit from paying the Congolese pennies and getting away with horrendous labor abuses.
The treatment that people are facing is not new as Central Africa has long been oppressed and exploited by colonial and imperialist forces. Infamously, King Leopold II of Belgium forced the enslavement of then “Congo Free State,” where slaves were brutalized to extract rubber. Later, European nations and political tyrants continued to exploit the land and workers for rubber, ivory, palm oil, copper, cobalt, and other resources. In response to the struggle for independence of the D.R.C. from imperialist powers, the U.S. government sponsored the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the D.R.C.’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. Global superpowers continue to ensure that African nations remain politically weak in order to extract their wealth.
This is one story among thousands around the world. Cobalt Red makes it undeniable that the liberation of the Congolese, and people worldwide, means putting an end to the system that has brutalized them for centuries. It will take an international struggle to put an end to imperialism and return power over resources and governance to the hands of the masses. Cobalt Red is essential reading for that struggle.