Despite record industry profits, DRC’s cobalt miners fall further into poverty

New living wage calculation shows that workers at DRC’s industrial cobalt mines labouring for the energy transition are falling further into poverty.


Image : Griff Tapper/AFP

A new report by UK-based corporate watchdog RAID and Congolese legal aid center, Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), has revealed that workers at the world’s largest industrial cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being pushed further into poverty, despite the mining industry’s significant contributions to the energy transition.

The report, which used the Minimum Expenditure Basket methodology developed by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies, calculated that a living wage for workers in Kolwezi, Congo is $480 per month, an increase of $78 from the previous estimate in 2021.

The research found that prices for basic goods in Kolwezi have gone up significantly as a result of global economic turmoil, yet the wages paid to workers at Congo’s industrial cobalt mines have largely stayed the same.

Congo’s industrial mines are operated by multinational mining companies, including those from Europe and China, many of which announced enormous windfall profits last year. For example, the Swiss mining giant Glencore, which operates two of the most productive copper and cobalt mines in Congo, recently announced profits of $34.1 billion, up 60% from the previous year. Glencore’s shareholders received $7.1 billion in returns.  

RAID and CAJJ urged cobalt mining companies operating in Congo to pay all workers the minimum living wage, irrespective of whether they are hired directly by the mining company or indirectly via subcontractors. The groups also pressed electric vehicle companies, battery manufacturers and refiners to end contracts with cobalt suppliers who fail to take action to remedy worker exploitation.

“Prices for basic goods in Kolwezi markets have gone up significantly as a result of global economic turmoil, yet the wages paid to workers at Congo’s industrial cobalt mines have largely stayed the same,” said Josue Kashal, Manager at the Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ).

He slammed the international mining companies making record profits off the global energy transition, while Congolese workers bringing cobalt to global markets languish in poverty.

“The switch to clean energy must be a just transition, not one that leaves Congolese workers in increasingly desperate living conditions,” he said.

Anneke Van Woudenberg, Executive Director RAID insisted there was no excuse for not paying the Congolese workforce a dignified salary.

“The car manufacturers using Congo’s cobalt in rechargeable EV batteries should insist it is responsibly sourced, and not built on the backs of exploited Congolese workers.”

Glencore’s KCC mine is one of five mines surveyed by RAID and CAJJ. The others were CMOC’s Tenke Fungurume, Eurasian Resources Group’s Metalkol, Sino-congolaise des mines (Sicomines) and Société minière de Deziwa (Somidez).

In 2021, Glencore employed 11,110 workers at its KCC mine, of which 44% were workers hired via subcontractors. If all of the 4,874 sub-contracted Congolese workers working at KCC earned the living wage of $480.37 per month, the annual wage bill at the mine would amount to at least $28 million (plus taxes and other benefits), which is about 0.1% of the company’s profits last year, the rights groups say.

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