KOLWEZI, Congo — Apple Inc., Volkswagen AG and about 20 other global manufacturers found themselves on the defense when Amnesty International reported two years ago that the cobalt in some of their batteries was dug up by Congolese miners and children under inhumane conditions.
Many of the companies said they would audit their suppliers and send teams to Congo to fix the problem. Their efforts haven’t kept hand-dug cobalt out of the industry supply chain.
At a cobalt mine named Mutoshi in Kolwezi, freelance Congolese workers known as creuseurs — French for miners — could be seen in May descending underground without helmets, shoes or safety equipment. The mine’s owner is part of the global cobalt supply chain for companies including Apple and VW.
Miners there were using picks, shovels and bare hands to unearth rocks rich with the metal. Water sometimes rushes into holes and drowns miners, and an earth mover buried one alive last year, said local creuseurs and mine officials.
“Of course, people die,” said Christian Schöppe, then acting chief executive of the Mutoshi mine’s owner, Chemaf SARL, in May. “This is really shitty work.” He called the miners “barbarians” and said Chemaf had resisted giving them safety equipment because they would sell it.