Children working in a mine

How can we more effectively prevent and reduce the worst forms of child labour in global supply chains?

    A geographical challenge

    Global risk of child labour

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    The 2020 global estimates indicate that the number of children in child labour had risen to 160 million worldwide – an increase of 8.4 million children over the previous four years. Of those, 79 million children are in hazardous work. It is predicted that this number will rise further due to the Covid 19 pandemic, if social protection and other prevention measures are not provided.

    Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest prevalence and largest number of children in child labour, approximately 23.9%, or 86.6 million children. Whilst Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean have seen steady progress on child labour since 2008, similar progress has eluded sub-Saharan Africa.

    Two commodities with a high prevalence of the worst forms of child labour


      Democratic Republic of Congo is the leading producer of tantalum, accounting for over 37% of global output - significantly ahead of Brazil, the world’s second highest on 22%. When compared with other commonly extracted minerals, Tantalum has the highest share of Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM), an estimated 64% globally. ASM has strong links to child labour, hazardous child labour and wide-ranging environmental and social issues. The combination of these factors presents both a unique challenge and opportunity to identify and implement interventions to address child labour.

      Due diligence for companies using minerals mined in high-risk and conflict areas is covered by the OECD guidance on Responsible Supply Chains. The iTSCi scheme is the most common way to implement and monitor the OECD guidance in Tantalum supply chains. Since the introduction of conflict mineral legislation in the USA and Europe, iTSCi has provided a route to market for mining communities and aims to provide buyers of minerals with confidence that they are sourcing responsibly, whilst remaining engaged in high-risk areas such as DRC.

      The OECD due diligence model centres on a top-down approach, whereby consumer-facing companies are required to audit their supply chain to “ensure respect for human rights and avoid contribution to conflict”. One of the limitations of this methodology is that in source countries, local level producers can mask their engagement in human rights abuses such as funding armed groups, due to poor local governance, law enforcement and corruption. This means that global industries are spending large sums of money on due diligence, mostly at the latter stages of supply chains in non-source countries, often with little or no impact on the rates of child labour in areas of highest risk. In some cases, these efforts have even worsened working conditions and livelihood outcomes for mining communities, where the cost of implementing due diligence has driven down the price at which their products can be sold.

      Where is tantalum used?

        Electronics Industry (67%)

        Most electronic products contain some form of tantalum. Products such as smart phones and laptops that are fundamental to the way many of us live our lives, are particularly dependant on this resource. Tantalum allows the electronic components to function effectively and preserves the long-term reliability of electronic devices. Amongst other components, printed wiring boards, capacitors, camera lenses, and hard disk drives are the most common.

        • Smartphones
        • Laptops
        • Cameras
        • Internet of Things

        Medical Industry (21%)

        Used in prosthetic devices such as replacement hip joints, Tantalum is completely immune to bodily fluids and is non-irritating. Tantalum is perhaps the metal most highly resistant to attack by both oxidizing and reducing acids, making it ideal for handling the aggressive chemicals used in chemical process equipment within the medical industry.

        • Prosthetic Implants
        • Hearing Aids
        • Glasses

        Automotive Industry (9%)

        Tantalum use within the automotive industry centres on microelectronics for engine management, automatic braking systems, airbag activation, and global navigation satellite systems. Tantalum will likely become more critical as we transition towards electric vehicles.

        • GPS Systems
        • Electric Vehicles

          The Tantalum supply chain

          Typically, the mineral supply chain is understood as a linearly connected set of actors, looking top-down through the supply chain for due diligence activities and monitoring, with the origin or mine level at furthest point of the supply chain. For commodity supply chains, there is typically a “choke point” – in the case of Tantalum, this is where the raw commodity is refined or smelted before moving to manufacture and assembly. The choke point is a key point of both focus and challenge in mineral traceability and due diligence.

          ExporterSmelteror refinerComponentmanufacturerProductmanufacturerUPSTREAMCHOKE POINTDOWNSTREAMArtisal &small scale minerLarge scaleminerTraderRecycler

          Primarily, child labour is a geographic challenge. So, to meaningfully understand and address it in the Tantalum supply chain, a new model is required to better identify the key stages of the supply chain, and particularly to see origin communities and mines as a critical part of the industry they enable. This can help identify opportunities for companies and investors to work together across industries to see better and faster impact where child labour exists.

          Scroll through the stages of the supply chain to trace tantalum from origin to consumer.


          Despite the huge amount of wealth created by the presence of minerals such as Coltan, from which Tantalum is derived, areas of extraction have remained extremely poor, further exacerbated by the presence of armed groups and corruption. Therefore, children in these areas mostly work to support their household, though many also seek work because they see their peers earning money and want to do the same.

          Some children attend school as well as working, but many – even those who want to study – are unable to do so due to lack of resources and opportunities for education. While in some cases children are forced to support their families financially, the cost of sending children to school (even where it should in theory be free) – including tuition and food – is the primary reason children do not go to school or drop out at a young age. Even those children who attend school do so inconsistently, depending on their family’s need for them to work, and in many cases, they work after school hours. Those children who do not work outside of the home, are always involved in household work including fetching water, watching livestock, helping around the house or in the fields, or caring for younger siblings. Girls are far more likely to be engaged in paid and unpaid domestic-related labour for family or external employers. They are paid less than boys for their work in domestic labour, animal herding and jobs within mining. Our research indicates that perceived ‘light’ or ‘safe’ work, even within the household, can quickly become hazardous or harmful for children, who do not always have the necessary skill, equipment, or adult supervision to perform their tasks safely. Children often work in isolation or away from parental care, further contributing to their vulnerability to sexual abuse and enrolment into armed groups.

          Within the mine, it is in roles such as nettoyeurs, trieurs, and concasseur (washing, sorting, and crushing minerals from debris) that many women, children, and workers with disabilities can be found. It is also common to find children, mostly over the age of 15 but sometimes younger, performing some of the most dangerous roles in the mine, such as digging by hand for ore underground or engaging in commercial sex.

          The predominate number of children interviewed who worked in the mines had either personally experienced or witnessed physical injuries at the mine. In one of our studies, only 3.5% of children reported wearing any type of protective clothing or equipment while working, and most of these respondents were referring to wearing shoes. Primary health care is free and relatively easy to access in the region, however long-term injuries and treatment compounded by loss of income involve additional costs. 63% of child respondents who reported an injury at work claimed they and their families were not able to afford the treatment required.


          Efforts to tackle child labour and other human rights challenges within the Tantalum value chain centre around the OECD due diligence guidance and platforms such as iTSCI or RCS Global which enable traceability and due diligence implementation. One of the unintended consequences of programmes is that the cost of implementation represents a much higher proportion of expenditure for companies and individuals operating in DRC and other source countries, compared to companies operating at other stages of the supply chain. There is evidence that the cost of due diligence is being passed on from exporters (comptoirs) to their suppliers, impacting the livelihoods of everyone working at the mine.

          For further information, see the PACE Supply Chain Mapping Report.


          Coltan ore is refined into its derivatives for use on the global market by smelting companies. The processing stage is commonly understood to be the pinch-point in most mineral supply chains, due to the relatively small number of refineries and smelters globally. This is particularly pronounced in the Tantalum industry, where there are just 37 smelters refining Tantalum, compared to 187 for Gold, 82 for Tin and 57 for Tungsten. China has the market-leading share of Tantalum smelters (38%), followed by USA (15%) and Japan (13%). The Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI) develops standards and certification for smelters and refineries based on OECD Due Diligence guidance.

          This stage of the supply chain represents a real opportunity to improve the lives of mining communities. Building smelters in source countries, alongside complimentary Research and Development and higher education sectors, would allow mining communities to retain maximum value for their natural resources and develop pathways to safer and better-paid jobs in the local mining industry.

          Manufacturing and Assembly

          Once refined, Tantalum's primary use is in the creation of capacitors. Tantalum capacitors have an extremely high capacitance in a very small volume, which has been central to making increasingly smaller electronic devices or making additional room for larger processors or speakers. Tantalum is also used to create surface acoustic wave filters, used in mobile phones and televisions to improve audio quality. Printed circuit boards, camera lenses, and hard disk drives are all made with Tantalum, and are used in a wide variety of products from mobile phones and laptops to pacemakers and hearing aids to GPS devices and engine management systems for the automotive industry. Tantalum is also used to manufacture prosthetic joints and other medical implants due to its high resistance to corrosion.


          The OECD Costs and Value of Due Diligence in Mineral Supply Chains report indicates that it is these stages of the supply chain that there is the greatest spend on due diligence - primarily on hiring and training staff to audit and report on supply chain practices. This highlights another challenge with the existing due diligence model, as most of the money companies spend identifying or addressing human rights risks in their supply chains is spent in non-source countries, where there is a very low risk of child labour and other human rights issues.

          Recycling and reusing Tantalum from old products is high on the agenda within the industry, but the due diligence guidelines don’t particularly apply to this sector and often create a tick-box only response to due diligence requirements. These challenges highlight the need for a more integrated way of viewing the value chain and stages in it – to help ensure better and faster action where child labour exists.


          Although the retail of products containing Tantalum is global, the top importers of electronic products are the United States of America, China, and Hong Kong. Most customers at this stage of the supply chain have never even heard of Tantalum or its critical use in everyday products, let alone the human rights issues and child labour associated with its extraction.

          Consumer-facing and Business to Business (B2B) companies, public-sector procurement bodies and investors all have critical roles to play and there is a need to draw organisations from all three levels of the value chain to identify how resources and interventions can be more effectively targeted at addressing child labour where it primarily exists – at the origin of the supply chain.

            Tantalum at a local level

            What child labour looks like in a tantalum mining community

            Masisi Tantalum Mine

            Because of the deeply integrated factors and relationships that create the conditions for child labour to exist, systemic and systematic interventions to address it are required at the local level of the Tantalum supply chain. These interventions need to identify and account for the dynamics that impact children both positively and negatively across the whole fabric of the local community and economy. To help understand what this looks like for Tantalum, to the right is an example of an artisanal Tantalum mine in Masisi, in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The inner circle shows the links between the different actors in the local and regional mining value chain and highlights the types of work children can be found doing. The actors on the outer ring are members of the community and industry enablers who can affect the environment around these children.

            Click on the different actors to find out more about their lives, circumstances and dynamics of child labour, then add an intervention to understand how it might impact key actors and outcomes for children.


            This icon highlights roles where children are working.

            Masisi Mine
            Democratic Republic of Congo
            Mining raw materials
            Leaving the country
            Try adding an intervention
            Add an intervention
            Developing a Comprehensive Mining Sector: Smelter
            Alternative pathways: Digital skills training & employment opportunities


              The recommendations from our research centre on a multi-stakeholder approach, where business, local leaders, communities, children and parents, regional and national governments, and civil society combine their efforts and resources towards the goal of improving children’s lives and reducing reliance on child labour within the community. Simply barring children from the mines or choosing a “less risky” supplier/region will only further impoverish families who rely on their children’s income and may push children into even more dangerous work.

              You can read short summaries of the key recommendations below for Business, Civil Society, Investors, and Governments. More detailed recommendations in the key theme areas are available in downloadable PDF’s.

              To gain knowledge of the region and coordinate collaborative action, further research should be undertaken to understand the network of actors that operate both within DRC itself and externally, and the levers necessary to affect change. This includes the various armed groups and their tribal power dynamics, government actors whose influence over public life and the mineral industry may or may not be legitimate, industry actors and their links to both government and tribal groups, and the capability and capacity of civil society organisations acting in the region.

              In the short term, mine safety must be improved by providing PPE, mining machinery and equipment, and improving mine management systems to reduce injury and loss of life. Longer-term interventions should focus on improving the livelihoods and wellbeing of the mining community as a whole, increasing the earnings of miners to a level where they can support their family without resorting to child labour, and creating alternative pathways to similarly well-paid employment in safer and more desirable occupations.

              Younger children would benefit from initiatives to make school more accessible and remove barriers to attendance, building schools closer to mine sites, improving teacher training in subject matter and positive teaching methods, school meals programmes, and provision of books and equipment. Other services such as access to solar charging points, free wi-fi access and school gardens would further incentivise children of school age to pursue education. Access to education is important, but a quality education in safe and well-equipped schools has the best chance of creating lasting change.

              Any interventions to reduce child labour must also address family poverty and ensure that removing children from work does not lead to a loss of income that significantly lowers living standards. The key to the success of any project will be the consent and participation of children and their families from the mining communities in planning and decision making, empowering the community to lead themselves to a better life.


              Companies should collaborate with industry and cross-industry peers to address child labour using a bottom-up approach, forging partnerships in source countries with local businesses, civil society, and community leaders to implement programmes and initiatives to improve the lives of children in mining communities. Industry-level approaches are crucial to achieving the scale and consistency required to effectively map and implement effective, long-term change that reduces the risks for children and companies alike.


              To meaningfully address the risks to children, companies and investors, approaches need to focus on the fastest way to holistically address the risks to children. Due diligence requirements need to be re-framed from a bottom-up perspective. KPIs and resources need to focus less on identification of risk, and more effectively focus on regional and cross-industry collaboration to directly address the context which enables child labour to exist. Develop bottom-up due diligence approaches focused on collective action rather than individual risk. Interventions must focus on narrowing the gaps where fraud and corruption can damage the credibility of traceability processes and, more fundamentally, address aspects of traceability schemes which are putting inequitable pressure on the most vulnerable actors in the supply chain.

              Redirecting sourcing away from artisanal mining in areas of high reputational risk will only worsen the situation for mining communities and the children working within them, removing the major source of income, and threatening the livelihoods of people already experiencing significant levels of poverty. Rather, focus on developing faster cross-industry collaboration and initiatives to see commodity origin communities a core part of the industries they enable. For example, this lens can help place a focus on interventions that can effectively and safely bring value addition into source countries, developing a more comprehensive mining sector and enabling local communities to retain maximum value for their product.

              Models need to effectively utilise investor and company leverage together with government and civil society actors in-line with the private sector’s role in the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights.

              Civil Society

              Coordinate Human Rights efforts with local and national government and other aid agencies, developing collective long-term strategies for improving the lives of children that do not run the risk of being cut short due to funding or resourcing challenges.

              Develop projects to help facilitate free, accessible, and safe education, improved teaching standards and positive child interaction. Collaborate with local private enterprise to provide vocational training for youth with links to well-paid jobs in safe environments and nurture new enterprise / support local industries in the community.


              Tantalum-utilising sectors must recognise and engage with the critical role that mining and extraction origin communities play in their industry. This lens would enable more strategic, long-term approaches to improving the livelihoods of mining communities and the working conditions for all mine workers, particularly children and youth. Recognising the importance of ASM miners as key stakeholders must be borne out by giving miners a platform at all levels within the industry to promote their interests and articulate their concerns. Investors are ideally suited to drive a collaborative approach, with representation of actors from all levels of the supply chain and cross-industry collaboration.


              Develop bottom-up due diligence approaches focused on collective action rather than individual risk.

              Investors should ask how ESG and analyst requirements can be re-framed in ways which will lead to better and faster outcomes and impact where child labour exists - and enable investors and companies to better engage in these approaches.

              For example, introducing requirements to encourage the majority of ESG related resources and activities towards collective action in source countries tackling human rights issues, rather than on data requirements which lead to auditing and traceability activities. Interventions must focus on narrowing the gaps where fraud and corruption can damage the credibility of traceability processes and, more fundamentally, address aspects of traceability schemes which are putting inequitable pressure on the most vulnerable actors in the supply chain.


              Governments of source countries must focus on improving conditions for workers, including employment rights and minimum wage legislation that ensures employers are legally responsible for good practice. Increase social protection for families and child protection legislation, ensuring that children and their families have a voice in policy making to take account of their unique challenges and needs.

              Labour inspections should be increased with consequences for employers with children working in unsafe conditions, whilst ensuring that the children are not disadvantaged financially. Increase formalisation of the mining sector, for example by digitising mining licenses to automatically distribute the correct level of tax revenue to the regions to be effectively re-invested. Work with the private sector to develop safe job-creation schemes and improve infrastructure in and around mining communities, including transport, electricity, energy, and internet connectivity.

              International governments should use political pressure and trade incentives to encourage governments in source countries to prioritise improving the lives of children. Foreign aid budgets should be spent in source countries as much as possible, with the goal of tackling the root causes of child labour by reducing poverty in local communities, improving health and educational services, developing infrastructure, and creating safe, well-paid jobs.

              Project funding should be guaranteed, long-term, and be coordinated with other countries so that efforts to tackle child labour are resilient and consistent.

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