A total of 16 multinational companies including Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, a host of other tech firms and automakers were implicated in a new report by Amnesty International. The report talks about apparent child labour practices in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DC). This cobalt is then supplied to major tech companies across the world to make batteries.
The report, named ‘This Is What We Die For’, claims that the working conditions these children are exposed to are extremely hazardous and they work here in between or instead of school. The report also stated that there have around 80 reported miner deaths just in the last 4 months of 2015. A number of other deaths have gone unreported since then. This, Amnesty claims, is a huge violation of human rights.
The mines in DRC account for more than 50 percent of the world’s cobalt produce. This mined mineral is transported to different countries all over the world for different purposes.
The children working at these mines are as young as seven years old. And the income they score after a hard day of work is a meager one or two dollars.
The mined cobalt is sold to a DRC-based subsidiary of Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese company. After this, Congo Dongfang Mining International (CDM), a Korean subsidiary, processes the ore which is then sold to companies in China and South Korea. The mineral is then used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for use in smartphones and electric cars.
Amnesty investigated 16 companies regarding this issue. Here’s the response they received:
One company admitted the connection, while four were unable to say for certain whether they were buying cobalt from the DRC or Huayou Cobalt. Six said they were investigating the claims. Five denied sourcing cobalt from via Huayou Cobalt, though they are listed as customers in the company documents of battery manufacturers. Two multinationals denied sourcing cobalt from DRC.
Amnesty’s report is based off interviews with 87 people who work or have worked in the cobalt mines of DRC, including 17 children between the ages of 9 and 17. These workers claim to be working or have worked for shifts of 12 hours a day for a pay of next to nothing. They have also been physically abused and are made to carry heavy loads and are exposed to toxins that could lead to long-term lung diseases.
“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,”
says Mark Dummett, business and human rights researcher at Amnesty.
“It wouldn’t take a great deal to help these children’s lives.”
Of the accused companies, Samsung SDI, the division of the Korean tech giant that deals with batteries, in a statement to TechCrunch, said that it no dealings with either Huayou Cobalt or CDM. The company apparently conducts conducts written evaluations and on-site inspections in areas such as human rights, labor, ethics, environment, and health and safety on a two-year basis and awards them with certification.
Apple, on the other hand, gave a full text response to Amnesty International. A part of this has been quoted in the report too. Here’s Apple’s statement as seen on TechCrunch.
We appreciate the concerns Amnesty International raised. As discussed in our recent conversation, we share your interest in and dedication to improving the lives of workers around the world. Apple believes every worker in our supply chain has a right to safe, ethical working conditions.
Underage labor is never tolerated in our supply chain and we are proud to have led the industry in pioneering new safeguards. We not only have strict standards, rigorous audits and industry-leading preventative measures, but we also actively look for any violations. Any supplier found hiring underage workers must 1) fund the worker’s safe return home, 2) fully finance the worker’s education at a school chosen by the worker and his or her family, 3) continue to pay the worker’s wages, and 4) offer the worker a job when he or she reaches the legal age.
We have been reporting on our supply chain for 10 years because we believe transparency and the feedback that comes with it makes us better. Of more than 1.6 million workers covered in 633 audits in 2014, our auditors uncovered 16 cases of underage labor and all were successfully addressed. We take any concerns seriously and investigate every allegation. We engage with our suppliers all over the world, including directly with smelters and refiners. We’re also working on site to support programs that educate workers on local laws and protect the rights of miners.
Our efforts around conflict minerals are illustrative of our commitment to forging sustainable solutions to complex challenges deep within our supply chain. In the last 5 years, Apple worked with peers and stakeholders to implement and improve an industry wide standard, drove compliance with the Conflict Free Sourcing Program or equivalent third party audit programs, and expanded traceability to the mine site. As of November 2015, over 95% of our reported smelters are compliant or participating in a third party audit verifying their conflict-free sourcing practices. And we will not stop until we reach our goal of 100%.
Apple goes beyond what is legally required to drive further change in the DRC and neighboring countries. We provide significant funding and strategic guidance to several programs that are increasing the number of registered miners operating in, and selling their materials through, conflict-free channels, providing educational and health care support to mining communities, developing best practices for small scale miners to improve their productivity and health & safety, and improving methods for tracking and trading materials from the mine to the smelter.
Though it would be a simpler solution to stop our suppliers from sourcing from countries where challenges exist such as the DRC, doing so goes against our core value of leaving the world better than we found it.
We are currently evaluating dozens of different materials, including cobalt, in order to identify labor and environmental risks as well as opportunities for Apple to bring about effective, scalable and sustainable change. As we gain a better understanding of the challenges associated with cobalt we believe our work in the African Great Lakes region and Indonesia will serve as important guides for creating lasting solutions.
We know from experience that we can’t do this alone, and there are no quick fixes to the complex challenges in a global supply chain. But we are committed to being a force for change by advocating for and supporting positive government action and partnering with companies and other stakeholders such as Amnesty International working to make a difference. We have made significant progress, though we know our work is never done and will not stop until every person in our supply chain is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.