Cobalt mined by child laborers ends up in our smartphones, Amnesty International says

Batteries in products made by Apple, Samsung, Sony and other companies likely contain cobalt mined with child labor, a new report says.

Amnesty International says in a report released Tuesday that more than a dozen multinational companies aren’t doing their due diligence to ensure their suppliers aren’t using cobalt mined from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child laborers — some as young as 7 — abound.

Amnesty International teamed with non-governmental organization African Resources Watch (Afrewatch), which is based in the DRC, on the report. They conducted their research, including talking to men, women and child miners, in April and May 2015.

According to the report, the UNICEF estimates that in 2014, 40,000 children worked in DRC mines, many of them involved in cobalt mining. Some of those children work 12 hours a day collecting, sorting, washing and crushing minerals, and earn about $1 to $2 a day. Some have said they’re beaten or bullied by security guards that work for mining companies. Miners in the DRC engage in what’s known as artisanal mining — mining by hand — because the country is no longer able to support industrial mining.

Exposure to dust from cobalt mining can cause the potentially fatal “hard metal lung disease,” according to the report. Some of the miners Amnesty spoke with reported breathing problems and feeling pain “all over [their] bodies.” The report also mentioned accidents and dozens of deaths in the mines in the past couple of years.

Amnesty and Afrewatch said some of the children they spoke with reported having to work to help their families survive, with some saying their parents had no work. Some of the kids worked before and after school, while some did not go to school at all.

The report zeroes in on one of the biggest buyers of cobalt in the DRC, a subsidiary of Chinese company Huayou Cobalt, which then passes the cobalt along to battery-component makers in China and South Korea, which then sells them to companies that make lithium-ion batteries for our cell phones, electronic devices and electric cars.

By the way, there are no laws requiring companies to disclose their practices when it comes to cobalt — it is not considered a conflict mineral. Amnesty and Afrewatch say they think their report is the first time the cobalt supply chain has been tracked in any detail.

From the report:

Most of the consumer brands identified in Huayou Cobalt’s supply chain have a global presence. For them, supply chain due diligence requirements for all minerals – as laid out by the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] Guidance – are not new. Additionally, many of them are US-listed companies subject to reporting requirements under the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires them to check whether certain minerals in their products (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold) are contributing to the funding of armed groups or fuelling human rights abuses in the DRC or surrounding countries. Yet it is clear that these companies are currently failing to operationalise the OECD’s five step due diligence process beyond whatever measures they have put in place for 3T and gold. One company explicitly admitted and others implied that this is because cobalt is not covered under US legislation, clearly underscoring the value of law in influencing corporate behaviour.

Some of the well-known companies Amnesty and Afrewatch contacted regarding their cobalt supply chains denied direct dealings with Huayou, although they said it was complicated to try to pinpoint exactly where the cobalt in their batteries are coming from. HP Inc. told the groups it is “investigating” to try to find “a linkage” with the suppliers in question. Other companies that the groups contacted regarding possible ties to the cobalt that’s being mined in the DRC include Daimler AG, Huawei, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung, Tianjin Lishen Battery, Vodafone and Volkswagen.

Apple didn’t respond to the groups’ question about a Huayou Cobalt connection, but said it is “evaluating” its use of different materials including cobalt, according to the report.

Apple, maker of the popular iPhone, has long faced questions about labor and human rights of workers in its supply chain. It has touted making progress in improving conditions for those workers. The company has not yet responded to SiliconBeat’s request for comment about this report.

To read all the companies’ responses, see the Amnesty and Afrewatch report (PDF).


Photo: Miners dig for cobalt tens of meters below Kasulo, a township in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in May 2015. (Courtesy Amnesty International)


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  • appetite

    Did they forget to mention it ends up in your dumb phones, watches, cars, appliances…….it is soooo newsworthy if you can just say the word ‘Apple’