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Ever wondered how your smartphone is assembled and where all the minerals that make up its tiny component pieces come from? Not many people do, but a new report suggests that maybe you ought to.
The report, published by Amnesty International, claims that Cobalt mined by child labourers in the Democratic Republic of Congo is being used by companies such as Apple, Samsung and Microsoft as well as auto manufacturers like Volkswagen and Daimler AG.
Mark Dummett, Business & Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International, said
“Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made. It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products.”
The report, put together by Amnesty International and Afrewatch, a DRC-based non-government organization, claims that children as young as seven years old mine cobalt that is sold to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt).
“The glamourous shop displays and marketing of state of the art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow manmade tunnels risking permanent lung damage,” Mark Dummett, Business & Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International said.
The CDM processes the cobalt and sells it to three battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. This material is the same used in manufacturing lithium-ion batteries for use in smartphones and electric cars. The DRC represented about 55 percent of global mine supply in 2012 and the country contains almost 50% of known worldwide cobalt reserves.
These accusations are nothing new. In 2013, similar accusations were labelled against Apple. Chinese Labour Watch (CLW), a New York-based watchdog, accused an Apple supplier of committing “serious” violations against its workers. The alleged violations included dispatch labor abuse, hiring discrimination, women’s rights violations, underage labour and other violations.
Amnesty International and Afrewatch say that they contacted 16 companies listed as customers of the battery makers, based on information it found on investor documents and public records. Most of the companies, as they have before, claimed to not have been aware of any links to the companies cited in the report.
“It is a major paradox of the digital era that some of the world’s richest, most innovative companies are able to market incredibly sophisticated devices without being required to show where they source raw materials for their components” Emmanuel Umpula, Afrewatch Executive Director, said.
The findings were collected from interviews with 87 people who currently work or are former workers in informal, artisanal cobalt mines in the DRC. The interviews included 17 children between the ages of 9 and 17. According to the children that were interviewed, they work up to 12 hours a day to earn between U$1 and US$2. These 12 hours, in rainy and hot weather, are spent working over ground, gathering and washing rocks from dangerous industrial sites, lakes and rivers. In those 12 hours, the children have to lift heavy loads and are exposed to toxic chemicals and dust, the report claims. The effects can be fatal. Exposure to cobalt over a space of time is linked to ‘hard metal lung disease’.
“It’s a real tragedy, and we think that the companies that are profiting from the cobalt, which ends up in our smartphones, should be part of the solution,” Dummett said, “It wouldn’t take a great deal to help these children’s lives.”
Furthermore, Amnesty and Afrewatch obtained photographic and video evidence of the dangerous conditions in which many of the miners work, often without basic protective gear or safety guidelines. The two organisations called on the DRC government to expand its list of authorised artisanal mining zones, and that it should enforce safety regulations at all sites.
The organisations also said that companies like Apple, Samsung, Microsoft etc should not get away with claiming that they are oblivious to the issue of child labour.
“In this day and age, it’s not that complicated to work out whether human rights abuses are involved in the sourcing of products on the other side of the world,” Dummett said. “The world’s getting smaller and companies have a responsibility to assure that these human rights abuses aren’t taking place.”
image from Stop Child Labour