SEATTLE — Apple, Samsung and Sony are among the numerous well-known companies that stand accused of allowing child labor in the supply chain of their products. Cobalt is an essential ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, and most of it is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in incredibly dangerous conditions. As a result, the high demand for cobalt has been accompanied by allegations that child labor powers smartphones and that the consumption of these products is complicit in human right violations.
A 2016 Amnesty International report examines the typical supply chain by which child labor powers smartphones. Traders purchase cobalt from areas in the Congo that rely on child labor and especially dangerous conditions. They then sell it to a cobalt processing company that sells it to battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. These manufacturers sell their products to battery makers who supply lithium-ion batteries to major technology companies.
The Congo produces more than half of the world’s cobalt. Miners working there face several risks involving accidents and health damage. The miners lack the most basic protective equipment while they spend hours a day working in cobalt mines. Cobalt miners in the Congo use mostly hand tools to dig underground with minimal safety precautions. Breathing problems and birth defects in local communities have been tied to the toxic metals. Workers are paid based on what they find, and finding minerals is an excruciatingly difficult process with the pay only amounting to two or three dollars a day at the most.
A 2012 UNICEF report investigated how child labor powers smartphones by forming the basis of the supply chain. The report estimated that 40,000 children in the Congo worked in the mining industry. It is especially difficult to remove boys and girls from the cycle of child labor because of the lack of schools in the country. Therefore, children work up to 12 hours a day in mines instead of attending school.
There is no regulation of the global cobalt market currently since cobalt does not fall into the U.S. legal category of “conflict minerals” that was created in 2010. This category prevents minerals like tungsten, tantalum and gold from being obtained from mines under militia control in the Congo. However, companies using cobalt are largely left alone with the expectation that they ensure their supply chains are free from human rights abuses.
These facts call into question the integrity of large companies that claim to review their supply chains for human rights abuses. Lithium-ion batteries are a newer type of battery that allow more energy to be packed into smaller devices. The batteries power most smartphones, laptops and electric cars. As a result, demand for cobalt continues to skyrocket with the introduction of new technologies that require it.
Providing hope for the future, many high-profile companies have commenced investigations into the cobalt that forms the basis of the supply chain for their batteries. Most recently, Apple temporarily stopped buying cobalt mined in the Congo. The company previously said it would investigate its supply chain but did not want to hurt Congolese miners by cutting off their source of income. Apple intends to treat cobalt like a “conflict mineral” to ensure there are no human rights abuses in production.
This is a step in the right direction, but large companies need to continue doing their due diligence to ensure the components of their products are not mined by child labor.
– Lindsay Harris