Human rights organization Amnesty International is accusing Apple, Samsung and Sony, among others, of failing to do basic checks to ensure children do not mine minerals used in their products.
In a report published Tuesday, the watchdog says it found children as young as seven working in dangerous conditions to extract cobalt — a vital component of lithium-ion batteries — in the DRC.
Based on publicly available investor documents and interviews with 87 people, Amnesty explains the cobalt mined in the Africa country, source of roughly half of the world’s supply, it is sold on to large mineral firms, such as Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt).
Those companies process the ore, before selling it on to companies in China and South Korea, where it’s used to make batteries. Amnesty International claims that large manufacturers, including Apple, Sony and Samsung, use parts that contain the cobalt obtained thorough that supply chain.
The watchdog notes it contacted all the companies that came up in its research, and “none provided enough details to independently verify where the cobalt in their products came from,” although most offered at least qualified denials:
– Apple said it was evaluating if any of its cobalt came from Huayou or anywhere else in the DRC, but said “underage labour is never tolerated in our supply chain and we are proud to have led the industry in pioneering new safeguards”
– Samsung said “neither CDM nor Huayou Cobalt are registered suppliers and thus Samsung does “not carry out any business transactions with both companies.”
– Sony said it is conducting a fact-finding processes, but “so far could not find obvious results that our products contain cobalt originated from Katanga in the DRC. We will continue the assessment and pay close attention to this matter.”
– Daimler, which owns Mercedes, said the company’s procurement does not “engage in any traceable mineral or commodity purchasing activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Concerning the particular case at hand, we can confirm that we neither source from the DRC or the mentioned companies directly.”
– Volkswagen said: “To our best knowledge, the cobalt in our batteries does not originate from the DRC. To our best knowledge, CDM or Huayou Cobalt is not part of our supply chain.”
– Microsoft said it is unable to confirm “with absolute assurance” if its supply chain is involved. “Due to our supply chain complexity and the in-region co-mingling of materials, we are unable to say with absolute assurance that any or none of our cobalt sources can be traced to ore mined in the Katanga region,” Microsoft said.
– LG confirmed that Huayou is one of its suppliers of cobalt. “We requested our suppliers of cathode materials to confirm whether they used cobalt originating in Katanga in the DRC, and one of our 2nd-tier suppliers, Zheijiang Huayou Cobalt Co., Ltd. (Huayou Cobalt), has confirmed that their product contains cobalt originating in Katanga in the DRC.”
“The glamorous 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,” Amnesty researcher Mark Dummett said in a statement.
“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,” said Emmanuel Umpula, executive director of Afrewatch (Africa Resources Watch), which joined Amnesty to research the issue.
While many nations have rules that govern conflict minerals, cobalt is not considered one of them under a U.S. law passed in 2010. That ruling only lists gold, coltan, tantalum, tin and tungsten.
UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 40,000 children working in mines across southern DRC. Most of them do not go underground; instead, they perform a variety of tasks on the surface, including scavenging for ore and sorting extracted minerals.