Cobalt mined by child laborers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo may be entering the supply chains of major tech companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, as well as auto manufacturers like Volkswagen and Daimler AG, according to an investigation from Amnesty International and Afrewatch, a DRC-based non-government organization.
The report, released today, lays out how cobalt mined by children as young as seven is sold to a DRC-based subsidiary of Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese company. The subsidiary, Congo Dongfang Mining International (CDM), processes cobalt ore and sells it to companies in China and South Korea, where it is used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for use in smartphones and electric cars. Amnesty contacted 16 multinational companies listed as customers of the battery makers, based on investor documents and public records. Most said they were unaware of any links to the companies cited in the report, while others, like Apple and Microsoft, said they were evaluating their supply chains. Amnesty says that none of the companies provided enough information to independently verify the origin of their cobalt supply.
The investigation is based on interviews with 87 people who work or have worked in informal, artisanal cobalt mines in the DRC, including 17 children between the ages of 9 and 17. Amnesty and Afrewatch obtained photographic and video evidence of the hazardous conditions in which many of the miners work, often without basic protective gear or safety guidelines. The children interviewed for the report said they work up to 12 hours a day to earn between $1 and $2, and typically work above ground, gathering and washing rocks from defunct industrial sites or nearby lakes and rivers.
"It wouldn't take a great deal to help these children's lives."
They carry heavy loads, face physical abuse, and are regularly exposed to dangerous chemicals and dust, the report says, risking long-term lung disease and in some cases, death. Prolonged exposure to cobalt dust has been linked to "hard metal lung disease," which is potentially fatal, and many artisanal mines are poorly constructed and ventilated. At least 80 artisanal miners died in the DRC between September 2014 and December 2015, according to information gathered from a UN-operated radio station, though the report notes that the true figure is likely much higher since many accidents are not reported.
"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."
The DRC accounts for at least 50 percent of the world's cobalt supply. The country's mining industry used to be dominated by a state-run company, but it collapsed with the rest of the Congolese economy during the 1990s. Since then, the government has encouraged artisanal miners to dig for cobalt in areas deemed unsuitable for industrial mining, and it has passed regulations on environmental and safety practices. But Amnesty argues that the government has not authorized enough zones for artisanal mining, forcing many to strike out in unregulated areas, and has done little to enforce its rules. The report also documents cases where government workers extorted money from artisanal mine workers by making them pay for access to unauthorized areas.
(Amnesty International and Afrewatch)
According to estimates from UNICEF, there were about 40,000 children working in mines across the DRC's southern region in 2014, and the US Department of Labor has listed Congolese cobalt as a good produced by child labor since 2009. A DRC government study, cited by Amnesty, estimated that there are between 110,000 and 150,000 artisanal miners in the country's southern region, most of whom are self-employed. Nearly 64 percent of the Congolese population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank, and the country ranks next-to-last on the UN's human development index. Ongoing conflict in the country has been fueled in part by its vast supply of natural resources.
A US law that went into effect last year under the Dodd-Frank Act requires public companies to disclose whether their supply chains involve so-called conflict minerals — tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold — which have been linked to violence in the DRC. Dummett says similar regulations are needed for cobalt, which has not been linked to any armed groups in the country, though some question the effectiveness of the Dodd-Frank approach. A 2015 report from Assent Compliance, a Canadian IT firm, found that 90 percent of the 1,262 companies that filed conflict minerals reports couldn't say for certain whether their products are conflict-free. Others fear that the high costs associated with the regulations could entice businesses to leave the DRC altogether, which would only exacerbate the country's poverty.
Some say required disclosures could actually hurt the DRC
"Whether or not this could have any impact is questionable given the rather mitigated impact of Dodd-Frank on the ground," says Christoph Vogel, a researcher at Zurich University and senior fellow at NYU's Congo Research Group, who was not involved in the Amnesty investigation. "Rather than improving human rights conditions and livelihoods, the law's practical implementation has so far contributed to increasing poverty and economic exclusion while the previous criminal networks largely continue to operate."
In written responses provided to Amnesty, Apple and Microsoft said they could not verify whether the cobalt in their products originates from the DRC, or whether the cobalt is processed by CDM or Huayou. Samsung SDI, which supplies batteries for Samsung and Apple, said it is "impossible" to determine whether its cobalt is sourced from the DRC, and that both CDM and Huayou are not in its supply chain. It acknowledged having a relationship with L&F Material, a South Korean battery maker that was also implicated in the report, though it claimed that its materials were sourced in Japan. Volkswagen, Daimler, and Huawei denied doing any business CDM or Huayou. Volkswagen acknowledged a relationship with Tianjin Lishen, a Chinese battery maker implicated in the report, while Daimler could not confirm whether cobalt in its parts originates in the region "due to the high complexity of automotive supply chains."
"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," Apple said in its statement. "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."
"companies have a responsibility to assure that these human rights abuses aren't taking place."
Companies still face major challenges in tracing their supply chain, says Lawrence Heim, managing director at Elm Sustainability Partners, a consultancy that advises businesses on conflict minerals. (The consultancy has no business relationships with the companies cited in the Amnesty report.) Confidentiality agreements make it difficult for components makers to verify the origin of raw materials, Heim says, and minerals gathered from artisanal mines are often lumped together for processing without any formal tracing. He also takes issue with Amnesty's "accusatory tone" toward car makers and tech companies, saying it's "unfair" to criticize their cobalt supply chain policies when they're still working to adhere to disclosure rules on conflict minerals.
In their report, Amnesty and Afrewatch call on the DRC government to expand its list of authorized artisanal mining zones, and to enforce safety regulations at all sites. It also urged multinational companies to conduct due diligence on their cobalt supply chains, and to publicly disclose their policies. "In this day and age, it's not that complicated to work out whether human rights abuses are involved in the sourcing of products on the other side of the world," Dummett says. "The world's getting smaller and companies have a responsibility to assure that these human rights abuses aren't taking place."
Ben Radley, a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Hague, says any plan to eliminate child labor must address the economic factors that underpin it. "You can't stop children working if it is their only means to an education or they have no other alternative to sustain themselves and their families," Radley said in an email, adding: "If we are serious about stopping child labor in the mines, the incentives for them to do so must be there. Otherwise, they will soon return."