Archive for January 2016

Apple and Microsoft Investigated for Child Labor Issues

Amnesty International and the African Resources Watch (Afrewatch) released a report today regarding child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the report, children ages seven and up are working 12-hour days in dangerous conditions to mine cobalt, a material that many tech firms use to create smartphones. The report also claims that large tech companies like Apple, Microsoft and Samsung have not performed the basic checks necessary to ensuring that their mineral mining operations don’t use child labor.

cobaltCobalt is integral to the creation of rechargeable lithium batteries, which are found in many smart mobile devices. Over half the cobalt used globally originated in the Dominican Republic of Congo, which has often been criticized for its tolerance of child labor.

This is not news to human rights enthusiasts. In 2012, Unicef uncovered the fact that over 40,000 children had worked in DRC mines in the past year and that many of those mines harvested cobalt. Adult and child mine workers were interviewed, and many described being paid as little as $1 daily and enduring violence, intimidation and health problems on the job.

Amnesty International and Afrewatch claim that mines employing those people provided the cobalt in lithium batteries sold to 16 multinational brands. According to the report, the cobalt came from Congo Dongfang Mining, which is owned by the Chinese mineral company Huayou Cobalt. Huayou Cobalt then sells its minerals to battery manufacturers, who then sell their batteries to Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Vodafone, and a variety of other tech giants.

According to Huayou Cobalt, company heads were not aware that their suppliers relied upon child labor and in general labor in unsafe working conditions.

Samsung, Sony and Vodafone apparently denied an claims to having a connection with this supply chain or to DRC Cobalt in the first place. Apple responded by saying it was evaluating many different materials including cobalt for labor and environmental risks. Microsoft claimed that it had not traced cobalt use in its products all the way to the mine level “due to the complexes and resources required.”

cobalt2The DRC has met a variety of conflicts as a result of its possession of huge amounts of highly valuable natural resources. The demand for these resources brings plenty of buyers, causing the DRC to build up the largest workforce of miners in the world. However, these miners work in uncontrolled and dangerous conditions and are unchecked by environmental regulations, leading to land degradation and pollution.

Globally, the cobalt market has remained unregulated due to its possession outside the “conflict mineral” legislation that regulates the extraction of other minerals like gold and tin. Cobalt’s extremely high utility in the manufacture of smartphones and other mobile devices that run off small lithium batteries have perhaps made it necessary for it to be upgraded to “conflict mineral” status. This however, would likely face powerful lobbying by tech companies that prefer lower prices to human rights.

As to how knowledgable these companies were about the sources of their cobalt, it’s difficult to say. Though I for one would not be surprised if the secret’s outing was the biggest surprise this event had to offer the tech giants.