Your smartphone battery might be made with cobalt mined by children. Image Credit: FairPhone
Your smartphone battery might be made with cobalt mined by children. Image Credit: FairPhone
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Amnesty International says children as young as seven are mining for Cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with their efforts helping to create Lithium-ion batteries that may well end up in products offered by top-tier technology companies.

The human rights group details its theory in a new piece of research titled “This is what we die for”: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in Cobalt.”

The report explains that the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is home to both industrial and “artisanal” mining. The latter engages between 110,000 and 150,000 people, often in dangerous self-constructed mines. Children work the tailings of the mines, picking up minerals by hand. Many involved in the artisanal mines suffer symptoms consistent with lung disease.

Amnesty explains exploitative conditions among Cobalt traders who buy from artisanal miners, with children especially vulnerable to those who under-pay or dispute weight of goods for sale.

The report acknowledges – often and in considerable volume – that the DRC government isn’t enforcing the trade well, but also suggests those who manufacture or use Lithium-Ion batteries ought to be be aware that much of the Cobalt they acquire has dubious provenance.

“Independent traders – most of them Chinese – buy the ore, regardless of where it has come from or how it has been mined. In turn, these traders sell the ore on to larger companies in the DRC which process and export it,” the report states. Amnesty says one of the larger concerns in this industry, Chinese-owned Congo Dongfang Mining International (CDM), is known to sell Cobalt to battery component manufacturers that have dealings with battery-makers that in turn sell to the likes of Apple, Vodafone, HP Inc, LG, Samsung, Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo and Huawei.

Amnesty wrote to the companies mentioned above, but most dissembled and/or disputed its conclusions about their supply chains.

HP Inc, for example, said “As of now we have not found any linkage between our products and the DRC mine. If a linkage is found, we will take steps to address the risks you have raised.” Vodafone said “Both the smelters and mines from which the metals such as cobalt are originally sourced are several steps away from Vodafone in the supply chain.”

Samsung, which stands accused of buying Cobalt from sources it shouldn’t and also selling batteries, said “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. Therefore it is impossible for us to determine whether the cobalt supplied to Samsung SDI comes from DRC Katanga’s mines.”

Sony said its own investigation “could not find obvious results that our products contain the cobalt originated from Katanga in the DRC.”

Apple told Amnesty it is “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.”

Amnesty concludes with a raft of recommendations, including for tech companies to pay more attention to their supply chains, aided by new regulations around the world to monitor the Cobalt trade.

Those working in artisanal DCR mines doubtless have a rotten time of it. Whether regulation is the best way to improve it, at speed, is hard to say. Shaming big-name tech companies may be one way to speed things up, by changing the nature of demand for the mineral.

[TheRegister]