Essay on Child Labour in Congo

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I wonder how many of us really know what goes into making Samsung’s new slimmer tablet or Apple’s newest iPhone? The answer is the mining of rare earth minerals without which none of these devices can work. The unsettling truth about how these minerals are mined is probably not what you want to hear, but it has been kept under wraps for long enough. Hello my name is Elizabeth Shaw, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here at the ‘Future of Technology Conference 2017’. There is great hope in front of me here; there is great excitement in the room for the future of our industry. But it must be an industry of which we are proud; one that is sustainable; an industry that exercises corporate, social and moral responsibility.

Today, I am here to expose the ethically abhorrent practices of rare earth mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Northern China before I call on everyone in this room to take action against the abuses within our industry.

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The treatment of rare earth miners in the Congo is immoral, it is unjust and it cannot go on. In the DRC rare earth miners work 12 hours a day with their bare hands in search of the tantalum, cobalt and tungsten for our iPhones. Their payment for a gruelling day’s work: $5, a sharp contrast to the $500, $800 or $1000 you and I paid for our precious “space grey” smartphones. They have no safety equipment. They haul the minerals on their backs, all under the eyes of the foreman constantly urging them to work harder, faster, longer, often using violence to do so.

But then there is the issue that lies beneath the surface: the hidden child labour. The hidden child labour that Apple, Samsung and HP are quite happy to keep just where it is: deep, deep in the Luwow mine. A mine where children as young as 10, that’s right just 10 years old slave away in brutal conditions day in and day out to support their families. Do we really want to be responsible for contributing to child labour? No, we don’t. While we are casually swiping, scrolling and taking selfies, approximately 40,000 children – according to UNICEF – are working in unregulated, unsafe mines to support an industry that ransacks resource-rich land. Local communities gain nothing from this.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Apple couldn’t possibly support such horrific treatment”, “If Samsung knew what was happening they would have nothing to do with it”.

Well they do know and they have stated they will continue to source from the DRC as long as it adheres to their code of treating workers with dignity and respect. Well my question to Apple and Samsung and to all of you here today is where is the dignity in underpaid miners digging for these minerals with their bare hands? Where is the respect in forcing men and children to work in poorly supported tunnels? The practices of rare earth mining are morally bereft. Not only does the industry mistreat its workers, but it also has significant and deadly repercussions for the environment and local people.

Let’s look at China. Baotou is the world’s largest supplier of rare earth minerals: it is a toxic nightmare. The once green, productive, farming village, has been replaced by a vast pond of toxins containing radiation, acids, heavy metals and radioactive material. The mine’s effect on surrounding communities — catastrophic. The toxic pond does not have a proper lining meaning the poisonous sludge has been seeping into the village drinking water for 20 years. Wang Jianguo is a 43 year old farmer, his health is destroyed and his livelihood with it. The encroaching toxins have taken his crops, his livestock and the lives of seven of his friends. The local people aren’t working at the mine, being paid by the mine or have any connection to it, yet they are dying of cancer, suffering from diabetes, battling debilitating osteoporosis and choking from chest problems because of their geographical closeness to a hideous pile of sludge. This is such a stark contrast to the gleaming, white, Apple stores we are used to. Tech companies have made sure the black sludge doesn’t creep anywhere near their shop fronts.

While the likes of Apple, Samsung and Vodafone are slow to act on this issue, the Arts industry is already weighing in. The Brisbane Festival’s key show in 2015 was a re-telling of Verdi’s Macbeth through the lens of the conflict in the Congo. In this show the witches symbolize the faceless representatives of a multinational mining company. The extraordinary performance grabbed theatre-goers with both hands, opening the eyes of the audience to the plight of the Congolese. Similarly, when actor Robin Wright discovered the truth about this illicit trade, she felt compelled to take action, as a privileged American, through creating a film – When Elephants Fight – to put a spotlight on the issue. In this film, she asked families with workers in the mine ‘What can we do?’ And they responded, ‘Be our voice - we have no voice here’. And that is what she has done with the launch of the #standwithcongo campaign, and that is what I urge you to do today. Be the voice of the 7-year-old Congolese child sent to work each day because he is small enough to climb into tiny holes in the mine. Be the voice of the Baotou resident in Northern China whose internal organs are deteriorating from the toxicity of the air and the water. Be the socially responsible voice of a member of our industry determined to make a difference. It is not only the responsibility of the Arts community to highlight this issue; it is the responsibility of the tech industry – of which we are a part – to take real action on this issue.

As members of the tech industry, and consumers of smartphones and devices, we are all implicated in the atrocities committed in the DRC and Northern China. So, what can be done? How can we combat this? I’m a realist; I’m at a conference about the future of technology. I know we, as consumers won’t stop buying phones, tablets and laptops. But fair trade in this industry is possible, despite its magnitude. There is already a new wave of smartphone manufacturers, such as Fairphone, that guarantee transparency of their supply chains and use fairly mined minerals only. We can make choices as consumers. As members of the tech industry, we can be a voice for the voiceless when we take on our multitude of roles in various tech companies. We can involve our workplaces in the Global e- Sustainability Initiative at that is working towards a responsible transformation to a sustainable world for the electronics industry.

Now that we know the truth about our shiny tech products, as the future of technology, let’s do something about it.   

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Essay on Child Labour in Congo. (2024, April 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
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