Congo mines must end on-site confinement, civil society groups say

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Mining companies in Democratic Republic of Congo must end mandatory mine-site confinement policies, a group of 11 civil society organisations said in a letter to 13 of Congo’s biggest copper and cobalt mining companies on Thursday.

Sealing mine sites off is an extreme measure taken by mining firms in Congo and elsewhere as they seek to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks which could force them to shut down.

At many mines in Congo’s southern copper- and cobalt-rich region, workers have been told by managers to either stay and work or lose their jobs, the organisations said, citing workers and union representatives.

Companies should give workers the choice to continue commuting to work while living at home, and those who decide to stay on a confined site must be given adequate compensation, including bonuses, they said.

“The current situation should not be used as a pretext to infringe these rights and circumvent your responsibilities,” the international and Congolese organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and RAID, said.

At some confined mine sites, Congolese workers reported being given insufficient food and water and inadequate accommodation, while at others they had no adequate personal protective equipment or handwashing facilities, the organisations said.

Even if companies do not end confinement entirely, they should at least ensure any confinement is as short as possible and reviewed regularly in consultation with workers and unions, the organisations said.

Companies should also provide confined workers with free means to contact family members daily, they said.

Congo is the world’s biggest producer of cobalt, accounting for 70% of global supply of the metal used in batteries for phones and electric cars. It is Africa’s top producer of copper.

Glencore GLEN.L, which runs the Kamoto Copper Company and Mutanda mine sites in Congo, said: "The operational workforces of KCC and Mumi (Mutanda) are not confined to site."

“Our teams in the DRC are working closely with the local government, unions, health agency and other key responders to provide effective local solutions to COVID-19,” a Glencore spokesman said in emailed comments.

“This includes temperature screening, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment including face masks), hand sanitisers/wash stations, medical facilities and social distancing to help protect our workforce.”

Eurasian Resources Group, Chemaf, Huayou Cobalt 603799.SS, and Ivanhoe Mines IVN.TO did not immediately reply to emailed requests for comment.

Reporting by Helen Reid; editing by David Evans and Jane Merriman