The Department of Labor’s

Exposing Exploitation in Global Supply Chains Series

From Artisanal Mines to Electric Cars:

How does cobalt mined with child labor end up in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries?



Photo Credit: © Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post/Getty Images A "creuseur," or digger, descends into a tunnel at the cobalt mine. Kawama, Democratic Republic of the Congo. June 8, 2016.

Lithium-Ion Batteries, Cobalt, and the Push for Renewable Energy

From wind turbines to electric vehicles, rechargeable battery technology is key to a green future. Today, lithium-ion batteries can be found in everything from electric vehicles to the cell phone in your pocket.

These rechargeable batteries can store significantly more power than earlier battery technology. Drawing on minerals like cobalt, a by-product of copper, lithium-ion batteries are replacing fossil fuels in critical technology.

As demand for green energy grows, the spotlight shines brighter on where these materials come from and how they make their way into our electronics.

Photo Credit: Photo by schuttersnap/Unsplash.
July 5, 2020.

Where Does Cobalt Come From?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the main source of cobalt globally—in fact, over 70% of the world's cobalt comes from mines in this country. Cobalt mining is centered in the “copper belt” region of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba Provinces, where the cobalt is also refined for export. 

While some cobalt is mined at large-scale industrial mines, artisanal and small-scale mines are responsible for 15–30% of local production. Child labor is often found in these artisanal and small-scale mines, which are less regulated and rarely visited by labor inspectors.

Map of the DRC, indicating where cobalt comes from

Photo Credit: © Anna Toshcheva/Alamy Stock Vector/Alamy Stylized vector Democratic Republic of the Congo map showing big cities, capital Kinshasa, administrative divisions

Mined with child labor

Cobalt is often mined by children exploited in dangerous and illegal child labor.  

Recognizing the prevalence of child labor in the mining of this mineral, in 2009 the Department of Labor  placed cobalt ore from the DRC on its List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. Over a decade later, child labor persists in cobalt production, raising risks for the entire lithium-ion battery supply chain.

Child labor, under international standards, means work (excluding permissible light work) below the minimum age as established under national legislation—usually 14 or 15 years old—as well as the worst forms of child labor which, for children under the age of 18, includes all forms of slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, illicit activities, and hazardous work that is likely to harm their health, safety, or morals.

Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor

Ziki Swazey's Story

Ziki Swazey was a child laborer in one of the DRC's artisanal small-scale cobalt mines. As an 11-year-old, he had never seen the inside of a classroom, nor could he read or write. All he knew was mining. He worked in blistering heat under dangerous and exploitative labor conditions washing cobalt. Each evening, with hands weary from washing cobalt and a heart longing for education, he returned home with a mere dollar or two in his pocket to provide for his family and tend to his sick grandmother. 

In early 2018, Ziki was able to leave the cobalt mine and enroll in school for the first time. But many of his peers still work in the mines. In the DRC, over 40,000 children, some as young as 6 years old, work in cobalt mines. Often working in tight spaces underground without proper safety equipment or procedures, child laborers face serious risks of injury or death. They can fall into open mine shafts or they can be trapped or crushed by tunnel collapses. The DRC's laws prohibit children under the age of 18 from working in mining. However, due to lack of enforcement of labor laws, widespread poverty, and a growing global demand for cobalt, children continue to work in dangerous conditions mining this critical mineral.

Click here and here to learn more about Ziki's story.

From the DRC to China

Children work at the very earliest stages of the rechargeable battery supply chain—a supply chain dominated by China, which imports nearly 90% of its cobalt from the DRC. Chinese firms own, operate, or finance most of the DRC's cobalt mines. In the process of refining cobalt prior to export, cobalt from multiple sources is mixed together. When this happens, cobalt produced with child labor becomes impossible to distinguish from cobalt mined without child labor, tainting DRC's cobalt exports with child labor.

In 2020, the Democratic Republic of the Congo exported $2.36 Billion in cobalt. Over 90% of the DRC’s cobalt was transported to China ($2.17 Billion in 2020), with most intended for “fine” refining and integration into battery chemicals, as shown in the graphic below.


Photo Credit: © Samir Tounsi/AFP/Getty Images
A conveyor belt carries chunks of raw cobalt after a first transformation at a plant in Lubumbashi before being exported, mainly to China, to be refined. Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. February 16, 2018.

From China to the World

After cobalt from the DRC is further refined, it is sent to factories to produce rechargeable battery chemicals and components. Eventually, these inputs end up in lithium-ion batteries produced in China.

Populations in the U.S. and around the world use Chinese-produced lithium-ion batteries, and by extension, increase demand for the cobalt that powers them. Nearly half of U.S. lithium-ion battery imports in 2020 came from China. 

The transition to renewable energies has fed the growing demand for cobalt and other minerals. Strong government plans worldwide to limit or ban the sale of gas and diesel vehicles have led to multi-billion-dollar electric vehicle (EV)-related investment programs. It is estimated that the global EV fleet could exceed 200 million vehicles by 2030.

Downstream Goods at Risk

Chinese-manufactured lithium-ion batteries are found in dozens of downstream products that we use in our everyday lives.

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Electric Vehicles

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Cell Phones

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Vacuum Cleaners

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Wind Turbines

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Hearing Aids

"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."

Read more about the Deputy Undersecretary's visit here

image of Thea Lee, Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor.
— Thea Lee, 2022
Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs, DOL
Official visit to the DRC.

The Department of Labor is informing the public.

Our research shows that lithium-ion batteries are produced with an input—cobalt—made by child labor.



Photo Credit: © Wan Shanchao/VCG/Getty Images
Employees assemble lithium-ion batteries at a factory. Huaibei, Anhui Province, China. November 14, 2020.

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How can governments and companies respond to these challenges and protect workers in the cobalt supply chain?

Government, private sector, and multistakeholder partnerships are working to improve conditions throughout the cobalt supply chain. The Government of the DRC has expanded oversight and control over the artisanal and small-scale mining sector, including in areas rich in copper and cobalt. In early 2021, the DRC announced the creation of the Entreprise Générale du Cobalt (EGC), which aims to formalize and regulate the artisanal and small-scale cobalt sector to meet increasing demand for cobalt as the world transitions toward green energy. In addition, the DRC's Minister of Mines joined the Cobalt Action Partnership, a public-private initiative that promotes due diligence in the cobalt supply chain.

Still, additional efforts are needed to address child labor. Below are a few ways different actors can make a difference.

  • Recommendations for the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

    • Ensure workers can exercise their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
    • Fully fund civil and criminal enforcement agencies responsible for conducting inspections or investigations and ensure that labor inspectors conduct worksite inspections at artisanal and small-scale mines.
    • Raise the age of compulsory education to align with the minimum age for employment to ensure that children are not vulnerable to illegal child labor between the end of schooling and the beginning of legal work.
    • Improve access to education for all children by eliminating informal fees, training additional teachers, and building additional schools.
    • Strengthen certification programs by including an enforcement mechanism for supply chain actors who are not in compliance and ensure proper grievance mechanisms for workers.
  • Recommendations for the Private Sector

    Establish effective due diligence and social compliance systems to reduce labor risks in the cobalt supply chain. Relevant actions include:

    • Identify and engage with stakeholders to map the supply chains of products that may involve cobalt and conduct risk and impact assessments.
    • Adopt and implement a code of conduct that incorporates respect for international human rights, including fundamental principles and rights at work, such as freedom of association and collective bargaining, occupational health and safety, non-discrimination, and the elimination of child labor and forced labor.
    • Train suppliers and partners on the code of conduct and labor standards and ensure that grievance mechanisms are in place and accessible for workers in the cobalt mining industry.
    • Monitor and remediate violations of labor standards, including taking steps to address and prevent future violations.
    • Conduct independent auditing and thorough verification of all due diligence systems and strengthen coordination and enforcement mechanisms of multistakeholder and certification bodies when applicable.
    • Publish information on the operations and outcomes of due diligence systems, including the performance of second- and third-tier producers and buyers.

U.S. Department of Labor's Work to Eliminate Child Labor in Lithium-Ion Battery Supply Chain

The Department of Labor-funded, $5.5 million COTECCO project, implemented by the ILO, works to address child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s cobalt supply chain. Focusing on artisanal and small-scale mining, the project raises awareness on child labor in the supply chain, builds the monitoring and enforcement capacity of the DRC government, and improves private-sector monitoring and remediation of child labor violations. COTECCO has established a formal partnership between the Congolese Mining Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Enterprises of the Congo, which jointly represent both formal large-scale mining companies and artisanal miners in the cobalt supply chain, to promote best practices around remediation efforts in mining and enhance dialogue between the companies. As a result of this partnership, mining companies in the DRC, including Chinese-owned firms, are given the opportunity to participate in activities to learn how to monitor and remediate child labor in their supply chains. In addition, the COTECCO project supported the Government of the DRC in its development of a national decree to create the Interministerial Commission in charge of Monitoring Child Labor in Artisanal Mining and a second decree for the creation of the provincial commission in Lualaba.

Three staff members for the COTECCO project in front of a newly-installed billboard that reads School guarantees peace, tranquility
Province of Lualaba –: installation of a billboard. The billboard reads in both French and Swahili: “School guarantees peace, tranquillity.” Photograph provided by the COTECCO project.

The Department of Labor-funded $4 million Global Trace Protocol Project, implemented by ELEVATE, seeks to increase the downstream tracing of goods made by child labor and forced labor. The project is designed to address the barriers in supply chain traceability. It aims to develop and share open, accessible, and replicable tools that can advance the knowledge base on supply chain tracing and scale the adoption of traceability solutions by various actors in different sectors. In addition to other global work, the project is piloting a traceability protocol and tool in the DRC cobalt supply chain that includes key data elements for that industry and common labor rights indicators. In support of those developments, the project published the Cobalt Supply Chain mapping report, Context Analysis report, and Traceability Glossary.

Learn more through DOL's reports and tools

findings on the worst forms of child labor

TDA Report

Focusing on the efforts of certain U.S. trade beneficiary countries and territories to eliminate the worst forms of child labor through legislation, enforcement mechanisms, policies and social programs.


list of good produced with child labor or forced labor


Listing goods that ILAB has reason to believe are produced by child labor or forced labor, including, to the extent practicable, goods that are produced with inputs that are produced with forced labor or child labor.


list of products produced by forced or indentured child labor

EO List

Containing goods and their source countries that ILAB, along with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, have reason to believe are made by forced or indentured child labor.

ILAB Sweat and Toil mobile app logo

Sweat & Toil: Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking Around the World is a comprehensive resource developed by ILAB documenting child labor and forced labor worldwide. Data and research in this app are taken from ILAB's three flagship reports. This app fits these three information-packed reports the size of a phone book in the palm of your hand.

ILAB Comply Chain mobile app logo

To help mitigate child labor and forced labor risks, Comply Chain: Business Tools for Labor Compliance in Global Supply Chains, targets companies and industry groups seeking to develop robust social compliance systems for their global production. Comply Chain provides a practical, step-by-step guide on critical elements of social compliance and is designed for companies that do not have a social compliance system in place or those needing to strengthen their existing systems.

ILAB Better Trade Tool logo

The Better Trade Tool empowers users to advance efforts in supply chain transparency as well as strategic sourcing priorities. This innovative tool integrates existing reporting developed by ILAB with U.S. import trade data, including Harmonized Tariff Schedule codes. The Better Trade Tool is intended to serve as a resource for users interested in learning about labor exploitation risks in global supply chains.

OCFT Knowledge Portal

Check out the ILAB Knowledge Portal, a valuable tool for researchers, civil society organizations, other governments, and international organizations seeking to implement good practices in addressing child labor and forced labor worldwide. The portal makes grant-funded resources and evaluation report learnings publicly available and searchable online.

ILAB Knowledge Portal

To learn more, visit our supply chain hub!

DOL supply chain research