It takes a lot of metals and minerals to make our favorite gadgets, whether they’re smartphones, TVs, or everything in between. Just where these materials come from is under new scrutiny from Amnesty International. The organization claims it has traced the source of cobalt in the batteries from many smartphone makers — including Apple, Samsung, and Sony — to conflict zones in Africa.
“Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made.”
Cobalt is just one among a number of minerals that are mined in regions of the world such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC, unfortunately, is also home to ongoing conflicts that kill thousands, promote child labor, and a host of other nasty things. A new report by Amnesty International accuses Huawei, Lenovo, Microsoft, Sony, Apple, and Samsung by name as buyers of the conflict cobalt.
Amnesty International researched a number of investor documents to discover that a cobalt mining company in the DRC called Congo Dongfang Mining, processes and ships the minerals to a number of smartphone manufacturers in China and South Korea. The report documents how the mining company gets the cobalt from areas where child labor is used in unsafe mines. In total, 16 different companies are connected to the cobalt.
Cobalt is an important material for making lithium ion batteries, which come standard in just about everything that’s portable and electronic these days. In addition to cobalt, a number of other conflict minerals are known in the industry, including tungsten, tantalum, and tin. Organizations like the Enough Project have spoken extensively about the use of conflict minerals in smartphones for years. About half of the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC, where child labor and other tactics are used to meet the world’s production needs.
Conditions in the mines are rarely safe, and Amnesty International reports that most miners work without essential protective gear, such as gloves, work clothes, or face masks to protect their skin and lungs from disease. The organization says at least 80 miners died in the DRC between September 2014 and December 2015, and many more become ill from working in the poor conditions.
To make matters worse, many of the miners Amnesty International interviewed were children who said they worked for 12 hours a day to earn a mere dollar or two. UNICEF says that approximately 40,000 children worked in mines in the DRC in 2014, and that the majority of them were mining cobalt.
Despite the data, there isn’t any regulation in the cobalt market, Amnesty International says, and cobalt isn’t listed as a “conflict mineral” in the United States.
“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.”
Some of the companies connected to this latest discovery — including Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft — have already responded to the claim, and are researching to confirm whether Congo Dongfang Mining materials reach their factories.
In 2014, Apple expressed its interest to phase out conflict minerals in the coming years by setting responsible sourcing standards for its materials and minerals used to produce its gadgets. Others, like Fairphone, aim to create conflict-free modular devices that are more sustainable and responsibly made.
You can read more about Amnesty International’s report or download the whole document on the organization’s site.