The small cost to end child mining is not a price Big Tech is willing to pay

When he visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), human rights lawyer Terry Collingsworth said he was presented with a “parade of maimed children” waiting to meet him.

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“I’ve been doing human rights work for more than 35 years,” he told Digital Trends. “This was the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen.”

Collingsworth was in DRC to investigate the subject of child labor around the cobalt mines there. Cobalt is a key component of the lithium-ion battery, which is used in our smartphones, computers, and even in certain electric cars — all items that are nearly inextricable from the way we live our lives in developed nations. DRC is the most cobalt-rich nation on Earth, accounting for 60 percent of worldwide production, and Collingsworth said it’s not a secret that children are being exploited, maimed, and killed in these mines.

What would happen, then, if corporations suddenly switched to using more ethically mined resources, even if it meant more expensive products?

According to Collingsworth, not much. He said he’s working with an economist to estimate what the real cost differential would be for companies’ production, but his best professional guess is that there is maybe, at most, $5 worth of cobalt in your average $1,000 iPhone.

“Even if they marked up the price, do you really think they would lose much of their consumer base over an extra $20?” Collingsworth said. “This is a question of, what is the cost of preventing kids from being killed and maimed.”

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There’s already, sort of, an answer to that: The Fairphone. Headquartered in The Netherlands, Fairphone’s business model hinges on radical transparency of their supply chain, with a focus on working with fair trade materials and responsible sourcing. The phone itself, while it doesn’t have the color options or some of the sleekness of other smartphones, retails for less than $500, around the same price as the older iPhone models.

Collingsworth has filed a lawsuit against Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla on behalf of 14 children who were severely injured or killed in these mines. He and his organization, International Rights Advocates, are alleging that these companies “are knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in Democratic Republic of Congo to mine cobalt.”

“All of these kids already know someone who’s died or been buried in a mine collapse,” Collingsworth said of his trip to DRC. “They’re not in school because they were unable to pay the $6 per month school fees, and they go to work knowing they’re risking their lives.”

At the beginning of 2017, Apple announced it would temporarily stop buying cobalt from the Congo, following a Sky News report of the mining conditions and use of children in the DRC. The suit alleges they never really examined their supply chain.

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“Any person who has ever been to this area [where the cobalt mines are], you can just stroll up to these mines, and you see kids climbing all over the place,” Collingsworth said. “Any company that says, ‘Oh, we weren’t aware’ of the use of kids has either never been there, or they’re ignoring what they see.

“Apple is worth a trillion dollars,” Collingsworth added. “They could stand to spend a few hundred thousand to stop maiming and killing kids.”

All of the companies named in the lawsuit except for Dell have not yet responded to a request for comment. Dell, in a statement to Digital Trends, said: “We’re currently investigating these allegations,” and that it works to make sure all of their suppliers uphold the human rights of their workers. “We have never knowingly sourced operations using any form of involuntary labor, fraudulent recruiting practicess or child labor,” the statement said.

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