Recently Google, Apple, Microsoft, Tesla and other tech companies were named in a lawsuit that claims each knew that forced child labor is being used to mine the cobalt that goes into a lithium-ion battery. The cobalt in question is being mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and if history is any indication everything in the lawsuit is likely true.
Africa is an actual and literal gold mine when it comes to many of the metals and other raw materials that are used to build the tech products we use every day. And it’s no secret that how these materials are gathered is done in a way that makes corrupt African officials rich and keeps the price down for companies who make goods from the materials in question.
I’ve worked in Africa, and several people that work at Future Labs were born in South Africa. During my time in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia I saw the victims of these practices and heard their stories. Young children are forced to dig and mine something valuable with no regard for their safety, then turn everything over to whichever faction was in control at the time. Then a broker would smuggle things to a buyer in a country like Nigeria, which had a good trade deal with the countries in Asia that manufacture goods. All the money went back to the “rural ruling class”, which was usually whoever had the most guns. Most likely the actual government knows what’s going on and is reluctant to start a civil war. Look what it took to slow down the exportation of blood diamonds and ask yourself if cobalt is that different.
Everyone who has spent any time in West or Central Africa knows how this works. You can’t help but know it because the evidence is everywhere. Even African countries with legitimate mining businesses will have smaller operations that exploit young African people. It’s sickening and there is no doubt in my mind that children are mining cobalt in the DRC and hurting themselves every day to do it, whether they like it or not.
Mining is hard and dangerous work. Forcing kids to do it is sickening.
It’s easy to blame colonialism and how the rich western countries helped erect governments that are filled with corruption and have no qualms about hurting people. But that’s not something I am versed enough to speak about — but seeing teenagers missing a hand because they worked mining gold or industrial diamonds is.
Someone at Google knows it, too. And it’s time that Google does something meaningful to help the African people, because Google needs Africa (its resources, really) as much as Africa needs Google’s help.
Ideally, Google would funnel billions and billions of dollars into projects that directly benefit the African people; provide schools, provide equipment and education about sustainable farming, and stop supporting companies that build products made from questionably sourced raw materials.
Someone at every company named in the lawsuit knows how this cobalt is being mined. It’s not really a secret.
That’s not going to happen at scale because the idea isn’t feasible. You can only build so many schools or hospitals and Africa is like any other place and plenty of folks just don’t want things to change. But that doesn’t mean Google — and Apple, and Microsoft, and Dell and every other tech company — can’t help.
Africa doesn’t need any more foreign countries pushing ideas along with dollars. Africa needs access to information and a way to educate every person who wants to be educated. Africa needs infrastructure and internet that uses it. Fiber across a continent isn’t ever going to happen, but satellite at every library could. Build the libraries. Connect them. Fill them with the things people need to be part of the twenty-first century. Build out new technology centers that can do things like launch Space-X rockets or assemble Dell laptops.
Money can work miracles. Tech companies have lots of it.
Africans are just like we are. Some of the most industrious and hard working people I’ve ever met are in Africa, using the very limited amount of resources they have to make their small towns and villages better. We can’t just sit back and let things continue the way they are now and watch big tech get bigger and Africa be pillaged for its raw resources.
Change can be hard, but money can make hard things much easier. Billions in the bank may make stockholders happy, but tech companies have a chance to do the right thing with it all instead.