In today’s tech-heavy world, the demand for key component minerals has been climbing rapidly. These precious minerals are commonly mined in developing countries, where multi-national corporations such as Apple and Samsung employ the locals for “economical” wages. What these mega-companies rarely speak about and what consumers usually do not see or hear about, however, are the deplorable working conditions and shocking number of underage children working within the mining industry.
According to a recent report issued by Amnesty International, as it currently stands nearly 50 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries. Investigators from the human rights organization got an inside look into the cobalt industry and found that thousands of African children as young as seven are being employed to do rigorous physical labour, including long days of digging with “basic” tools, as well as washing and sorting ore.
These artisanal miners are referred to as “creuseurs,” and the report estimates that anywhere between 110,000 – 150,000 creuseurs are currently employed in the Congo. While not all of these workers are underage, Amnesty investigators estimate close to 40,000 of those workers are children.
The reason for cobalt’s high demand is due to its use in the manufacturing of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, which can be found in a plethora of today’s most popular technological devices, such as smart phones and laptops.
Most cobalt is sold to Congo Donfang Mining International, a wholly-owned subsidiary of China’s Hyayou Cobalt Company, Ltd. The report also sourced cobalt trade to products sold by big tech-players such as Microsoft, Motorola, Dell, HP Inc., Sony, Vodafone, Volkswagen, Samsung, Apple, and Chinese firm BYD.
Here’s what the report had to say about the working conditions:
Several children said that they had been beaten, or seen other children beaten, by security guards employed by mining companies when they trespassed on those companies’ mining concessions. Security guards also demanded money from them.Most children indicated that they earned between 1,000-2,000 Congolese Francs per day (US$1-2). Children who collected, sorted, washed, crushed and transported minerals were paid per sack of minerals by the traders. The children had no way of independently verifying the weight of the sacks or the grade of the ore, and so had to accept what the traders paid them, making them susceptible to exploitation.
In response to the report, many of the mentioned companies have denied sourcing from the DRC, or have explained that every effort has been made to source the product ethically.
Dynda A. Thomas, a lawyer specializing in conflict minerals, noted in another analysis published Monday by National Law Review, that existing laws covering conflict minerals are unlikely to apply to cobalt, and efforts to change these regulations are likely to face steep resistance. She used Intel’s move toward “conflict-free” microprocessors as an example:
[E]arlier this month, Intel announced that it is now manufacturing “conflict-free” microprocessors. And, the company went on to commit that its broader product base would also be “conflict-free.” But, adding cobalt to the SEC’s definition of conflict minerals would mean starting over, at least with respect to cobalt in Intel’s supply chain.
She urged corporations to do more than the law requires, or face the wrath of human rights groups and the possible lost profits caused by the boycotts and activism they inspire.
The increased focus on cobalt illustrates why companies are well advised to develop due diligence processes and procedures that can be built upon and that address the risks in their own individual supply chains — based on their geographies, industries and products and not just based on the specifics of current government regulation.
Rathke concurred, and suggested tech corporations might take a page from another industry and reach out to human rights groups before that happens. She explained:
[M]any in the food and beverage industry have learned that working directly with NGOs and collaborating industry-wide is a better way to address these sorts of issues. Corporate-NGO partnerships have existed since at least the 1990s, and are often effective at addressing corporate social responsibility concerns raised by activists, such as workers’ rights, sustainability, and protecting indigenous populations.