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.