Daily practices in far away places affect us more than ever befor e. Citizens carry pain, suffering and even death of children daily in our bags and pockets. The batteries of smartphones, tablets and other portable electronic devices, without which we can no longer live or communicate effectively with one another, are powered by cobalt - a rare metal essential to the production of lithium-ion or Li-ion battery – a type of rechargeable battery that powers most everyday devices. Cobalt is mined in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), by children as young as 4 with no face masks, gloves, safety equipment or training, earning daily around the equivalent of 8 pence a day. These child miners will probably never even own a smartphone as they face a lifetime of hard labour and diseases. They use chisels and other hand tools to dig holes tens of meters deep, often without any permit. Others handpick rocks rich in cobalt ore at the surface. According to health specialists such as the United States’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), inhaling cobalt dust and continuous exposure to and chronic ingestion of cobalt have long-term damaging effects on the lungs and can cause hard metal lung disease – a potentially fatal condition. Skin contact with cobalt can cause dermatitis – a chronic rash. UNICEF estimates that there are 40,000 boys and girls working as artisanal miners in southern DRC, where cobalt is mined. 1
The so-called copper belt in the DRC, Central Africa Republic and Zambia yields most of the cobalt mined worldwide. In 2005, the copper deposits in the Katanga Province of the DRC were the top producer of cobalt with almost 40 percent of the world share (reports from the British Geological Survey)2. By 2015, the DRC supplied 60 per cent of the world cobalt production (32,000 tons), including artisinal (illegal) mining, which supplied 10 to 25 per cent. The political situation in the Congo influences the price of cobalt significantly. As evident from the data, more than half the world’s cobalt comes from the Congo, up to one-fifth of which is extracted by illegal miners. So the chances that the everyday devices we use are tainted by child labour are very high.
With huge reserves of cobalt - the United States Geological Survey estimates world cobalt reserves at 7,100,000 metric tons 3 - coming up with more ethical ways for its extraction is urgent. Yet major phone manufacturers - global brands including giants such as Apple and Samsung, are not obliged to let their customers know if their cobalt suppliers and producers use child labour. They just expect us – the consumers – to buy their goods with no questions asked. However, companies that are so dominant in the marketplace and have a great deal of influence to set standards and lead by example for the rest of the industry to follow have the moral, ethical and human responsibility to be more ethically alert and transparent about the production and supply process of their products. Closer scrutiny to ensure that non-ethical manufacturers and suppliers are gradually fended off the market, just like similar practices have been established in the clothing industry and more ethical policies are adopted by companies in the sector. But electronic producers are not the only ones to blame. In fact it all starts at the mining field, far away from the shiny windows and immaculate shelves of the large and expensive department stores in the West, we have become accustomed to.
How do tougher rules and regulations even begin to be enforced in countries like Congo that have been plagued by corruption, poverty, unemployment, crime and civil conflict for decades, even since gaining independence from its colonisers? Is that the new type of colonialism? Much more brutal with no official face. Western companies exploiting the young, cheap and convenient labour of mineral rich ex-colonies for commercial gains. Perhaps this is too biased of a point as the domestic governments of the mineral-rich home states profit enormously from these mines. Moreover, the domestic conditions are too fruitful and convenient. Poverty and unemployment are ramp, which pushes parents to send their children to work as soon as they can walk. They are forced by their miserable life circumstances - it is their only choice for survival – a perpetual struggle for pittance being passed on for generations. The rich and powerful benefiting from the poor – nothing new, some would say. However, daring to say that as one common humanity humans are more interconnected than ever before, and should strive to create a better world, and contribute towards the sustainable betterment of society. Without cobalt, mines, labourers, manufacturers, suppliers, producers, sellers, buyers, advertisers there are no sales, no consumers, no brands – the whole process is interwoven from start to finish. And at all stages of this global, far-reaching operation each stakeholder should ensure that the right choice is made for a positive long-term legacy, not for a short-term advantage and fluid interests. Governments have a legal duty not only to prevent child mining but eliminate it altogether. The Congolese government can and should do much more to ensure that the right labour laws are introduced that ban children from mining, and establish safer working conditions for all adult workers.
However, it is difficult to see how can these changes be achieved in a country synonymous with rape, being called ‘the rape state’, where some of the most brutal human atrocities are committed daily with impunity, as their perpetrators are never caught and prosecuted. The only way new practices can be attained is through galvanising a common effort and a united voice of big technology brands. They are the only ones that have the power and the influence to coerce DRC and other states’ policymakers to come up with better labour laws and enforce them effectively across the countries’ mines.
After revelations from human rights organisations and investigative journalists that children are used in the supply of cobalt sourced from African mines, the tech giant Apple announced on March 3rd, 2017 that it will temporarily stop buying the precious ore from major suppliers such as Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Co – a Chinese firm that is the largest buyer of artisanal cobalt in Congo. It sources metals from artisinal mines and its minerals are used in Apple products such as the most popular and profitable iPhone. Apple also assured the public that it will only be using suppliers that are verified to meet its workplace standards 4.
Undoubtedly it will be difficult to follow whether this practice will be sustained, as Apple has stated that it will only temporary enforce its new policy. Tracing the other unethical suppliers and independent traders that source from children mines, and stopping their market access is a whole other issue. Moreover, there is currently no significant public and government (national and international) pressure on other companies to follow Apple’s decision. The statement of Apple serves to prove that our phones, tablets and laptops, that were produced and sold before 2017, are tainted by child labour. What is more tragic is that there are no policies being debated and solutions being drawn out for the future. Independent traders, most of them Chinese, also represent a major challenge. Chinese companies are known to deploy widespread human rights abuses in their labour practices and they buy the ore, without asking which mine it has come from or how it has been mined (Amnesty International and Afrewatch).5
Since the release of Amnesty International’s report on the issue – ‘This is what we die for’ 6 , which traces how cobalt is used to power portable electronic devices, the organisation contacted 26 major companies regarding its findings. All global brands were found to be within the global supply chain of cobalt mined by artisinal miners in southern DRC. Some of the firms denied the existence of any link. The rest have advised that they are looking into Amnesty International’s findings and developing a due diligence system. None of the companies named have yet demonstrated that they are carrying out checks to their supply chains that comply with international standards. The participation of children in mining is widely recognised as one of the worst forms of child labour. Product manufacturers have a responsibility to check for child labour in their supply chains, address it where it is found, and publicly disclose the steps they have taken. 7
In the meantime, another dark working day has dawned in the DRC. Our everyday devices may be indispensable, but for how long more will we be dispensing the rights of the most vulnerable and deprived men, women and children, whose labour powers our modern lives?
Other key questions to consider for future research:
- Can other types of lithium-ion batteries be used to power devices and how can they be extracted? Is this viable and financially and commercially possible?
- How can it be ensured that technology companies do not use child labour suppliers? How can tougher rules and policies be introduced, and more importantly, enforced, in all stages of production to supply; mechanisms to scrutinise and trace the supply chain?
1Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/06/drc-cobalt-child-labour/
3United States Geological Survey: https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/cobalt/mcs-2016-cobal.pdf
4 http://fortune.com/2017/03/03/apple-cobalt-child-labor/ , https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/03/03/apple-cracks-down-further-on-cobalt-supplier-in-congo-as-child-labor-persists/?utm_term=.da4bb8df23e7
5 Amnesty International and Afrewatch: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/06/drc-cobalt-child-labour/
6Amnesty International Report - ‘This is what we die for’, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr62/3412/2016/en/