In recent years, activists and independent media have brought attention to “conflict minerals,” key components in technology that are often sourced from war-torn countries. And a recent report from a major human rights group sounds the alarm on a largely overlooked metal that’s being mined by thousands of children and underpaid adults in Africa.
Amnesty International issued the results of its detailed investigation into the sourcing of cobalt, a rare metal that forms a crucial ingredient of lithium-based rechargeable batteries, in a Jan. 19 report. According to the authors, more than half the world’s cobalt comes from Congo, including at least 20 percent which comes from so-called “artisanal miners” in the southern part of the country.
“These artisanal miners, referred to as ‘creuseurs’ in the DRC, mine by hand using the most basic tools to dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground,”according to the report, “This Is What We Die For.” “Artisanal miners include children as young as seven who scavenge for rocks containing cobalt in the discarded by-products of industrial mines, and who wash and sort the ore before it is sold.”
Most of the cobalt is resold to corporations by Congo Dongfang Mining International, a wholly-owned subsidiary of China’s Huayou Cobalt Company Ltd. From there, Amnesty was able to trace the cobalt to products linked to “some of the world’s largest and best known consumer electronics companies, including Apple Inc., Dell, HP Inc. (formerly Hewlett-Packard Company), Huawei, Lenovo (Motorola), LG, Microsoft Corporation, Samsung, Sony and Vodafone, as well as vehicle manufacturers like Daimler AG, Volkswagen and Chinese firm BYD.”
To produce the report, Amnesty researchers interviewed 87 current and former cobalt miners, including 17 children from five different mines. Overall, there are about 110,000 to 150,000 creuseurs in Congo, including thousands of children. Exact figures are hard to come by, but UNICEF figures quoted by Amnesty in the report suggest that there are about 40,000 children working as miners in the country, most of them tasked with producing cobalt. Conditions are said to be abusive and unfair for these underaged workers:
“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.”
Like other countries that produce conflict minerals, including gold and diamonds, Amnesty noted that, “The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world and has suffered from decades of war and poor governance.”
Amnesty’s report has many firms on the defensive. “So far, many of the big tech companies have denied sourcing cobalt from the DRC – or have explained that every effort is made to ensure that their raw materials are ethically sourced,” noted Sarah K. Rathke, a trial lawyer specializing in supply chain issues, in a Monday analysis for National Law Review. She believes tech companies can expect to face increased activism over conflict minerals this year.
Dynda A. Thomas, a lawyer specializing in conflict minerals, noted in another analysis published Monday by National Law Review, that existing laws covering conflict minerals are unlikely to apply to cobalt, and efforts to change these regulations are likely to face steep resistance. She used Intel’s move toward “conflict-free” microprocessors as an example:
“[E]arlier this month, Intel announced that it is now manufacturing ‘conflict-free’ microprocessors. And, the company went on to commit that its broader product base would also be ‘conflict-free.’ But, adding cobalt to the SEC’s definition of conflict minerals would mean starting over, at least with respect to cobalt in Intel’s supply chain.”
She urged corporations to do more than the law requires, or face the wrath of human rights groups and the possible lost profits caused by the boycotts and activism they inspire.
“The increased focus on cobalt illustrates why companies are well advised to develop due diligence processes and procedures that can be built upon and that address the risks in their own individual supply chains — based on their geographies, industries and products and not just based on the specifics of current government regulation.”
Rathke concurred, and suggested tech corporations might take a page from another industry and reach out to human rights groups before that happens. She explained:
“[M]any in the food and beverage industry have learned that working directly with NGOs and collaborating industry-wide is a better way to address these sorts of issues. Corporate-NGO partnerships have existed since at least the 1990s, and are often effective at addressing corporate social responsibility concerns raised by activists, such as workers’ rights, sustainability, and protecting indigenous populations.”
Watch “This is what we die for: Child labour in the DRC cobalt mines” from Amnesty International: