This month, I traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I met with government officials at the highest level, mining- industry executives, union leaders and civil society groups to discuss our shared interest in deepening U.S.-Congo economic cooperation, particularly concerning the critical minerals sector. We are committed to forging a deeper and stronger relationship with the Congo government to ensure mineral supply chains throughout the country are transparent and free of labor abuses. No mine site anywhere in the world should tolerate child labor, forced labor, unsafe conditions or other violations of workers’ rights. We need to hold accountable those who perpetrate such abuses.
This was the U.S. Department of Labor’s first high-level visit to Kinshasa in nearly 20 years, and only my second bilateral trip to meet with a foreign government since I assumed the position of deputy undersecretary in May 2021. Marcia Eugenio, director of the Bureau of International Labor Affairs’ Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor and Human Trafficking, and Melanie Calhoun, acting administrator of the Technical Support Directorate for the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, rounded out the delegation.
We traveled to the Congo, in part, to discuss problems – and solutions – in the cobalt mining sector. Cobalt is a critical component in the batteries found in cell phones, computers and electric vehicles. In 2020, the Congo produced an estimated 70 percent of the global cobalt supply. Child labor is used in cobalt mining in the Congo, according to the department’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. Tens of thousands of children work in cobalt and copper mining in the Congo’s southern Copperbelt region. This is a worst form of child labor due to the extremely dangerous nature of mining. Adults who mine these minerals also suffer from labor exploitation and unsafe conditions, such as collapsing tunnels and debt-based coercion.
During our visit to Kinshasa, we met with President Felix Tshisekedi, who shared our commitment to improving labor and living conditions in the mining sector and ensuring there is no child labor or forced labor in mineral supply chains. We also met with Prime Minister Sama Lukonde and discussed our common vision for increasing transparency and accountability in mineral supply chains to encourage socially responsible investment in the Congo.
We also had productive meetings with the Minister of Employment, Labor, and Social Welfare; Minister of Mines and the Minister of Social Affairs. In these meetings, we discussed the importance of establishing a strong legal framework, effective enforcement, functional intergovernmental coordination and social safety nets, and social dialogue and partnerships to improve conditions and livelihoods in the mining sector. We also discussed strengthening the labor inspectorate, addressing informality and ensuring that mining royalties are properly paid, accounted for and used to the benefit of miners and mining communities.
Last week, we had the honor of receiving a delegation from the Ministry of Mines at department headquarters. During this meeting with Minister Antoinette N’Samba Kalambayi and members of her team, we discussed ensuring greater coordination between the Ministries of Mines and Labor, innovative new initiatives under way in Lualaba province to formalize artisanal and small-scale cobalt mining, and ways ILAB and MSHA could potentially assist to help build the capacity of Congolese mine inspectors to carry out this important function. We at ILAB and MSHA look forward to having a long-term engagement and partnership with the Congolese government and other social actors to increase their capacity to address labor violations in the mining sector and ensure supply chains are free of labor abuses.
We hope our engagement with the Congo will further connect worker rights and responsible business practices with sustainable economic growth. This is especially important as the Biden-Harris administration moves forward with a global infrastructure initiative – Build Back Better World – with its focus on climate change, health care, gender equity and digital investments. We appreciate the warm hospitality and friendship shown to us on this trip and are grateful for the opportunities to connect with so many people working toward shared goals.
Thea Mei Lee is the deputy undersecretary for international affairs.