A number of major tech companies and car makers were recently linked to child labor. Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and Volkswagen were just some of those named in an Amnesty International and Afrewatch report that showed companies are using minerals mined by children in dangerous conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to the report, titled “This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt,” these companies are “failing to do basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products.” Tech companies source cobalt to create lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, which are used in smartphones and other electronic devices.
Details of Child Labor, Abuse
The DRC is home to more than half of the world’s cobalt supply, with 20% of the country’s production occurring in the southern region. According to the Amnesty report, children as young as 7 are mining cobalt in these areas. Amnesty and Afrewatch researchers reportedly visited artisanal mines in southern DRC in the spring of 2015 and spoke with 17 child miners who make between $1–$2 a day in up to 12-hour shifts.
The groups also took note of the dangerous conditions the miners, including children, were subject to. This included chronic exposure to dust containing cobalt, which can lead to asthma, decreased pulmonary function and lung disease. Mines are poorly ventilated, and unsupported tunnels where miners work often collapse, the report said. Miners do not wear gloves, face masks or other protective gear, according to the report.
Cobalt Supply Chain From the DRC to China to the US
Amnesty said researchers followed the cobalt supply chain starting in the DRC. A main buyer of the DRC mined cobalt is Congo Dongfang Mining International, a 100%-owned subsidiary of the Chinese company Huayou Cobalt Company Ltd. CDM smelts the ore and exports it to China where Huayou Cobalt processes it more and sells it to battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea that are used as suppliers of major technology companies, the report stated.
The companies Amnesty identified as using this cobalt include:
Companies identified in the report said they have zero tolerance for child labor in their supply chains. However, Amnesty said the companies also did not provide details on what steps they have taken to check if child labor exists in their supply chains.
“Many companies denied sourcing cobalt from the DRC and/or Huayou Cobalt – though they are listed as customers in documents of other companies who are listed as buying from Huayou Cobalt – but did not explain whom they sourced cobalt from,” the report said.
Samsung, for instance, told Amnesty it is impossible for it to determine the exact location of where cobalt in its supply chain was mined.
“In reality, it is very hard to trace the source of the mineral due to the suppliers’ nondisclosure of information and the complexity of the supply chains,” the company told Amnesty.
Daimler AG, the German automaker, also said it could not “definitely confirm” whether or not cobalt used in its products came from this problematic region in the DRC.
The Amnesty report also stated Huayou has failed to follow international best practices on supply chain due diligence to truly check if child labor and human rights abuses are occurring at its cobalt suppliers.