AMNESTY International has accused Apple, Samsung and Sony, among others, of failing to do basic checks to ensure minerals used in their products are not mined by children.
In a report into cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it found children as young as seven working in dangerous conditions. The DRC produces at least 50% of the world’s cobalt, which is a a vital component of lithium-ion batteries.
Miners working in the area face long-term health problems and the risk of fatal accidents, according to Amnesty, which says at least 80 miners have died underground in southern DRC between September 2014 and December 2015.
Major electronics brands, including Apple, Samsung and Sony, are failing to do basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products, said Amnesty International and Afrewatch (Africa Resources Watch) in their report.
The report is called: This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt. 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,’ said Mark Dummett, Business & Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.
‘Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made. It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products.’
The report documents how traders buy cobalt from areas where child labour is rife and sell it to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt).
Amnesty International’s investigation uses investor documents to show how Huayou Cobalt and its subsidiary CDM process the cobalt before selling it to three battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea.
In turn, they sell to battery makers who claim to supply technology and car companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Daimler and Volkswagen. UNICEF estimated in 2014 that approximately 40,000 boys and girls work in all the mines across southern DRC, many of them involved in cobalt mining.
The children interviewed by researchers described the physically demanding nature of the work they did. They said that they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads, to earn between one and two dollars a day. Even those children who went to school worked 10-12 hours during the weekend and school holidays, and in the time before and after school.
The children who were not attending school worked in the mines all year round.
For example, Paul, aged 14, started mining at the age of 12 and worked in tunnels underground. Other children said that they worked in the open, in high temperatures, or in the rain.
As with adult miners, they were exposed to high levels of cobalt on a consistent basis, but did not even have gloves or face masks to wear. The children interviewed for this report complained of being frequently ill. ‘There is lots of dust, it is very easy to catch colds, and we hurt all over,’ Dany, a 15-year-old boy, told researchers.
Several children said that they had been beaten, or seen other children beaten, by security guards employed by mining companies when they trespassed on those companies’ mining concessions. Security guards also demanded money from them.
Most children indicated that they earned between 1,000-2,000 Congolese Francs per day (US$1-2).
Children who collected, sorted, washed, crushed and transported minerals were paid per sack of minerals by the traders. The children had no way of independently verifying the weight of the sacks or the grade of the ore, and so had to accept what the traders paid them, making them susceptible to exploitation.
It is widely recognised internationally that the involvement of children in mining constitutes one of the worst forms of child labour, which governments are required to prohibit and eliminate. The nature of the work that researchers found that the children do in artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC is hazardous, and likely to harm children’s health and safety.
The children said that they had to work, since their parents had no formal employment and could not afford school fees. The DRC Child Protection Code (2009), provides for free and compulsory primary education for all children. However, because of a lack of adequate funding from the state, most schools still charge parents a monthly amount to cover costs, such as teacher salaries, uniforms and learning materials.
In Kolwezi, NGO staff told researchers, this amount varies between 10-30,000 Congolese Francs (US$10-30) per month, which is more than many can afford.
Some children do not attend school and work full time, others attend school but work out of school hours, on weekends and holidays. Fourteen-year-old Paul told researchers: ‘I would spend 24 hours down in the tunnels. I arrived in the morning and would leave the following morning … I had to relieve myself down in the tunnels …
‘My foster mother planned to send me to school, but my foster father was against it, he exploited me by making me work in the mine.’
UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 40,000 children working in mines across southern DRC. In response to the report, Apple claimed: ‘Underage labour is never tolerated in our supply chain and we are proud to have led the industry in pioneering new safeguards.’
Samsung claimed that it has a ‘zero tolerance policy’ towards child labour and that ‘If a violation of child labour is found, contracts with suppliers who use child labour will be immediately terminated’. Sony claimed: ‘We are working with the suppliers to address issues related to human rights and labour conditions at the production sites, as well as in the procurement of minerals and other raw materials.’
The Amnesty report, which was jointly researched with African Resources Watch (Afrewatch), traced how traders buy cobalt from areas where child labour is rife, selling it on to firm Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd.
Amnesty contacted 16 multinationals who were listed as customers of the battery manufacturers, who in turn source minerals from Huayou Cobalt. One company admitted the connection while four others were unable to say for certain the source of the cobalt they used. Five denied sourcing the mineral from the firm, despite being listed as customers in company documents and two others said that they did not source cobalt from DRC.
Six firms said that they were investigating the claims. ”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 executive director of Afrewatch Emmanuel Umpula.
‘The abuses in mines remain out of sight and out of mind because in today’s global marketplace, consumers have no idea about the conditions at the mine, factory and assembly line. We found that traders are buying cobalt without asking questions about how and where it was mined.’
Mark Dummett said that mining is ‘one of the worst forms of child labour’. He demanded: ‘It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products. Companies whose global profits total $125bn (£86.7bn) cannot credibly claim that they are unable to check where key minerals in their production come from.’