Buried Alive: Modern Day Slave Labor and Technology

Using a cellphone or laptop today to read this article? If so, you can bet your device was created through the unimaginable, horrifying use of modern-day slavery. Now, we should say we’re not pointing our fingers at you. This article, and all resources gathered to produce it, wouldn’t have been developed without these pieces of technology. We are all complicit in the business of the slave trade. 

Cobalt, an element that allows batteries to hold a charge longer with less risk to users, is found in surplus on the coast of the Congo. Because of its ability to be used in a wide variety of products, it has been exploited by wealth-obsessed businesses that will go to any lengths to come out on top.

The mining of the toxic element has become, in a sense, a seemingly unacknowledged epidemic. As consumers benefit from advancements in technologies, there are people dying every day to make them happen. With cell phones that stay charged for days on end and electric cars that are emissions-free, there’s a harsh reality of this revolutionization that we have to face. 

In the war-torn, never-ending exploited land of the Congo there is a cobalt-sourcing slave trade. Armed with absolutely no protections other than a flashlight (if they’re lucky), the Congolese people have been subjected to mining dangerous tunnels for pennies on the dollar. 

The violence endured in these mines cannot be understated. From mental to physical threats, people are suffering.

Men are worked down to the bone, literally, spending hours upon hours digging with their bare hands in claustrophobically small tunnels. Tunnels that may collapse at any moment. Women who are stationed to aid in the process are faced with rape and sexual harassment, given absolutely no leverage against their abusers.

And even worse, up to 70% of cobalt mining used child labor. Born to a life of misery, some parents lament that they’d rather their children be dead than have to work in a mine. The long-lasting effects on those impacted by child labor are yet to even be fully uncovered. 

And this doesn’t even cover the environmental desecration mining has done to people’s land. What was once someone’s home, the Congo has been subjected to becoming a lawless mill, stripped of almost all resources, where the literal bodies of loved ones are buried in rubble that is stepped over every day. 

Surely, you’re questioning how such atrocities are even possible of occuring in the 21st century. When every major company claims to be sustainable and to ethically source their goods, how is a majority of our cobalt be accessed in this manner? As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. Many companies can claim to be ethically backed because technically, they are. By disregarding the root source of such products, companies enable slave traders to continue to abuse workers, all without getting their own hands dirty.

And while as consumers we may not be wholly responsible for the corruption and exploitation of the the Conglese people – we have to acknowledge the role we play in the cycle of the slave trade process. We must demand more from the companies we purchase from, wielding the massive leverage we have to make actual change.  

If you look at every company that benefits from this broken system, they all have policies and procedures that would never allow such behavior. And yet – it’s happening. 

Siddharth Kara, activist, expert on modern-day slave trading, and author of “Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives”, argues that companies can make little changes to ensure this epidemic no longer continues. By paying adult workers a flat, livable wage, parents will no longer have to bring their entire families to work the mines just to afford one single meal for a day. And further, by providing workers with protective gear, companies will make a one-time payment that greatly improves the safety of the conditions workers face. These are just some of the ways in which businesses can more ethically innovate. 

Sustainable business practices are no longer optional. As we continue to create and pioneer technology, we must do so in a way that respects the people, the environment, and the culture of the places we source from. Businesses must guarantee ethical behavior in every single aspect of the process – from leadership to sourcing. 

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