11 human rights organizations warn thousands of DR Congo mine workers at risk of contracting COVID-19

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Multinational copper and cobalt mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo should take immediate steps to protect the rights of thousands of Congolese workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, a group of 11 international and Congolese human rights groups said on Thursday in a letter to 13 mining companies.

The group urged the companies to respect workers’ rights as they adopt policies aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 while continuing mining operations.

Workers and union representatives reported that in many cases workers were given no choice and were informed by managers to either stay and work – confined on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week – or lose their jobs. On at least six mining sites, workers have been confined for over two months.

“We remind you that you have the responsibility to respect worker rights and the human rights of your entire workforce, whether employed directly by you or through a subcontractor, as mandated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises,” the organizations said. “The current situation should not be used as a pretext to infringe these rights and circumvent your responsibilities.”

Workers at some of the mines said they received inadequate food and water rations, and had overcrowded sleeping arrangements and unsanitary toilet and washing facilities, risking the spread of Covid-19. Some said they were required to work beyond the regulatory maximum eight-hour shift without any additional pay. Workers said they had received limited or no communication about the duration of the confinement or future plans in response to Covid-19.

The rights groups urged mining companies to halt any policy involving confinement. Companies that nonetheless continue such policies have a responsibility to ensure adequate conditions for workers confined on company grounds. Workers should be given a free and fair choice to continue commuting to work while living at home. Employment contracts for workers who chose to stay home should be maintained, the groups said.

The rights groups also reported receiving credible accounts from workers and union representatives that the majority of mining companies were failing to respect recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO) on preventing the spread of Covid-19, including for social distancing, personal protective equipment, and handwashing, whether they had a policy of “lockdown” or not.

“We recognize that there are difficult decisions to be taken in these troubled times,” the groups said. “Nonetheless, the well-being of your workers should be paramount in any decisions taken.”

Some of the world largest mining companies operate copper and cobalt mines in Congo, including Glencore, Eurasian Resources Group, Ivanhoe Mines, China Molybdenum, and Huayou Cobalt Company. Congo is the world’s leading source of cobalt, supplying an estimated 70 percent of world production. Cobalt is critical for rechargeable batteries in electric vehicles and electronic equipment.

At least six mining companies are reported as being under complete or partial “lockdown.” They are Sino-Congolaises des Mines (SICOMINES), the Compagnie Minière de Musonoie (COMMUS), Somidez (the Deziwa mine), the Minière de Kalukundi (LAMIKAL), and the Minière de Kalumbwe Myunga (MKM).

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