On the theme of highlighting women’s talent and contributions to the industry, and identifying role models for future generations, MINING.com sat down with Jamie Wallisch, regulatory & sustainability expert, ESG & Responsible Sourcing at Canadian firm Assent.
Wallisch visited three cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last year to learn about the conditions there and report how manufacturers can responsibly work with mines to promote change and healthier working conditions.
On a delegation with the Fair Cobalt Alliance, Wallisch went to identify risks for manufacturing supply chains and report on how to mitigate those risks. The tour included the Musompo Regional Cobalt Trading Centre and the Kamilombe artisanal mine. She shared highlights and industry insights in this exclusive interview.
MDC: Can you tell us about the cobalt mines you visited in the DRC and the conditions there?
Wallisch: I was in the Kolwezi region of the DRC. I was able to visit two artisanal scale mines and one large scale mine. It was very eye opening to say the least. It was a privilege to be able to see the comparison between artisanal and large scale mines, because it’s just a completely different ball game.
It was enlightening in regard to the positive change that’s being made, especially within the non formalized artisanal sector. [We] see how they’ve actually instituted effective policies and procedures around employee safety [and] around appropriate labor hours.
It was great that the overall conversations [were] positive, because I think sometimes especially in the West, we always fixate on the negative story, how severe it is…the horrible conditions.
MDC: The artisanal sector employs millions of people around the world.
Wallisch: Absolutely — this is people’s well-being. This is their livelihood. This is what makes up their personality within their community, so being able to see them work in conjunction with other NGOs, with the government to bring it towards something that they want and have ownership over, that’s incredibly empowering. And I think that’s where the conversation on an international scale needs to shift towards.
MDC: What can suppliers make better for artisanal miners?
Wallisch: Although there’s improvement, it’s still incredibly severe, in terms of the demand physically and mentally that type of mining has.
In the artisanal scale mines, I saw 2-3 football fields worth of hole after hole completely exploited, so they’re constantly building new ones with very basic equipment, which is again still an improvement from what they were doing previously but still very elementary tools and machinery.
Seeing these younger male adults — they didn’t look like they were children, but definitely still younger, scaling the walls and they’re going 1520 meters deep within these holes — that’s incredibly eye opening for someone like me, who just sits at a desk, in front of a computer and talks about sustainability and how minerals are the new and greatest thing, especially within our ‘Green Age’. Very similar to that was the artisanal scale mining experience, and it was quite interesting to even compare the two artisanal scale mines because one was definitely more sophisticated than the other.
One was more rudimentary, very basic plastic tools while the other one had more sophisticated equipment, they had PPE (personal protective equipment). The women were overseeing that. They were the ones actually at the location handing out the equipment. They’re the ones that were in complete control over it. To give them that autonomy and ability to have ownership over something is great.
It also makes sense because a lot of that equipment was geared towards women working in other areas of the mine. For example, a lot of women are in charge of washing – naturally, a lot of that water is contaminated and so they need to use PPE to be able to protect themselves when they’re in the water.That’s inclusive, and also it makes things more efficient. It’s kind of a win-win for everybody.
The large scale mine was just something completely different, very sophisticated in terms of having their own mining site operations, huge machinery, trucks, construction equipment. They had the entire process on the other end in terms of refining all the way to to kind of the delivery of the final mineral. They also had a level of knowledge about the minerals, where they were going, where they were shipped to. That artisanal [miner] obviously doesn’t know, because someone just takes it and then it gets mixed in with large scale mined minerals.
MDC: What is Assent doing to help increase supply chain transparency for manufacturers?
Wallisch: Assent in its essence is a supply chain data management platform. A lot of the kind of supply chain initiatives that we focus on are, yes, product compliance, but we also help support responsible sourcing as well as ESG. This is where we come in to help bridge the gap between as far downstream as possible with these complex manufacturers all the way upstream to these rock extractives.
And it’s also breaking this expectation within manufacturing, the mines and the market that with the snap of your finger you can get viable and reliable data about your rock structure material – that’s not going to happen.
So we’re going to be transparent about that and it’s going to be a journey to get that reliable data, but you’re going to have to work with a partner as well as with your suppliers to highlight the education that’s needed.
You need to build these internal controls and these policies and then get that information and as you go further and further down your supply chain – the OEM’s and their suppliers both. It’s really the OEMs that set the expectations of what to do, what not to do, what we can get, what we can’t get because they’re the ones that are setting the precedence and expectations, which I think comes first within their industry associations and then regulators get kind of wind of those things. And then they put it into laws and acts.
MDC: How can manufacturers help working with the mines’ operations to promote change and better working conditions. What did you see actually happening?
Wallisch: I actually saw tangible proof of manufacturers taking action. And then that kind of trickling down to actually being enforceable change on the ground, which is really compelling.
What I see and what I would articulate to these manufacturers is [with] your program and your due diligence efforts around your supply chain, especially with responsible sourcing matters, you have to invest and you have to take the time to properly engage with your suppliers and properly understand the data to see what goals to put out there within the market. When you collect data for example, you can see the biggest risk.
You could try to mitigate that risk and then cut up with goals around that. Great. You’re going to put that in a public facing report and then that is publicly available for everyone to see. If you’re kind of incentivizing your sector in standardizing the way that you give public reports, then everyone in your sector is going to do that.
That is triggered to motivate nonprofits and governments to see what’s being expected with these places where they are getting the minerals that are in demand. That actually does go back to the local grounds and to the local community saying ‘we need to change the way that we’re doing certain things because there’s these expectations’, and if we don’t meet those, we’re going to lose business. So we recommend the public facing reports, absolutely, because it does create this butterfly effect. And may seem like a really small effort for you, but then it’s going to turn into a tsunami of change on the ground.
With new regulations coming out on an international scale, ESG isn’t a ‘nice to have’ anymore. It really is becoming a mandate.
I think the efforts and the expectations that we’re creating downstream truly have an impact and are making an impact on these local communities. You’ve got to keep trucking along and you got to keep doing what you can do within your four walls to make an impact on these communities – where this is their whole life. It was really positive to see how engaged and appreciative they were of the demand for change coming from the entire supply chain. There’s a level of urgency now, more than ever.