• Sampurnaa Bora

The Mineral Curse: Child Labor in Congo

The exploitation of third world countries or the developing countries by capitalist western countries is no new news to us. The form and agency of exploitation have kept on changing but the phenomena of exploitation have remained constant, the only difference being that it has been acquiring new names at every preceding stage. For instance, from mercantilism to colonialism to globalization the only thing that has changed has been the nature and agency through which third world countries are being exploited. But the primary motive of the exploitation of satellite states for the benefit of the metropolitan has remained constant.

Our assumption of freedom from shackles of colonial exploitation becomes redundant when we look at the guiding principles in the international scenario. Which are inherently linked and are affecting our domestic sphere. And this is where I try to give testimony to Yatana Yamagata’s essay ‘Decolonising World Politics: Anti – Colonial Movements Beyond Nation State’s ‘ through the example of the recent lawsuit filed against tech giants like Apple, Google, Dell, Tesla, Microsoft by Congolese families alleging that their children have been killed or maimed who were working in the supply chains of these companies mining for cobalt.

To understand this perspective, we must reflect on what Yatna Yamagata has talked about and then discuss the Cobalt mining incident. This is how this article would proceed.

Decolonising World Politics – Colonial Movements Beyond the Nation State

The core theme of the essay was that the anti-colonial movement cannot and should not be restricted within the geographical boundaries of nation-states. This is because the author believes that the legacies of colonialism are not restricted within nation-states and are transnational and intersectional in nature. And these are the areas which anti-colonial nationalist movement have failed to cover over the years.

Among other things that were highlighted by Yatna such as nationalism being product of colonialism, and the role of women in the anti-colonial struggle, our main emphasis is going to be on continuity of exploitation and oppression despite the demise of colonialism and portrayal of capitalism in the neo-colonial world.

In talking about the persistence of colonial exploitation that the author has termed the new global order as both, the postcolonial and the new-colonial by referring to Loomba. Post-colonial essentially means formal independence whereas neo-colonial means economically or culturally dependent. There are unequal power relations which constitute the international system and inflict various forms of violence. In this sense, national independence does not guarantee freedom from coloniality of power, which the author describes as a structure of control that continues to dominate the world. And this is why anti-colonial movements should go beyond the nation-states.

The author says that the transnational attribute of colonialism has been most significantly evident through the phenomenon of global capitalism. In this context, we definitely should not forget how colonialism was established alongside capitalism and it is this capitalism under which globalization emerged. And in this new phase of globalization, it is not the direct involvement of States but rather that of TNCs or MNCs in outright third world exploitation. And here again, in the Western model of globalization which stands to be dominant, it is the Western states which continue to benefit at the cost of the developing countries.

Cobalt Mines of Congo

All the above claims and views regarding the prevailing power relations in the international system can be best amplified by the recent issue of exploitation of Child Labor in cobalt mines of Congo. Although we have numerous other examples, this issue stands to be significant because it involves tech giants who have become household names. Moreover, it shows how today the TNCs or MNCs have become the agents of exploitation replacing the states who were the former agents.

According to The Guardian, Cobalt is used to power laptops, smartphones and electric cars. It is essential to power the rechargeable lithium batteries used in millions of products used by Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, Real. Apparently what came out of the lawsuit filed against these companies is that they aid and abet the death and serious injury of children who have been working in cobalt mines in their supply chains. The lawsuit has been filled by International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 parents and children from Democratic Republic of Congo in Washington DC. The mining companies whose names appeared in the lawsuit are Glencore which is UK based and Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese cobalt firm. These companies which supply the tech giants have allegedly benefitted from the labour of children who were forced to work in dangerous conditions out of poverty ultimately resulting in their death and serious injury.

There have also been incidences where families were not able to recover the bodies of their children who died due to the collapse of tunnels. There are even records of injured children being left in mining sites until being reached out by parents. However, the accused companies have defended themselves against these allegations.


The only condition which has enabled these incidences to occur is the abject poverty of DRC. The poverty of the population of Congo has forced them to let their children work in such hazardous and dangerous conditions. And it is this same poverty which has enabled the accused companies to reap benefits by illegally employing the children, not ensuring needed facilities and denying compensation to the aggrieved families. These companies have therefore carefully exploited the helpless condition of the people of Congo to ensure their greatest advantage.

There are also facts to support this view. According to The Guardian, the demand for cobalt has increased by triple in the past five years due to the desire for cheap handled technology. Also, more than 60% of cobalt originates in DRC, which is one of the poorest and least stable countries of the world.

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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