Children as young as seven mining cobalt
used in smartphones, says Amnesty
Amnesty International says it has traced cobalt used in batteries for household
brands to mines in DRC, where children work in life-threatening conditions
Tuesday 19 January 2016 11.02 AEDT Last modified on Tuesday 19
January 201619.49 AEDT
Children as young as seven are working in perilous conditions in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo to mine cobalt that ends up in
smartphones, cars and computers sold to millions across the world, by
household brands including Apple, Microsoft and Vodafone, according to a
new investigation by Amnesty International.
The human rights group claims to have traced cobalt used in lithium
batteries sold to 16 multinational brands to mines where young children
and adults are being paid a dollar a day, working in life-threatening
conditions and subjected to violence, extortion and intimidation.
More than half the worldâ€™s supply of cobalt comes from the DRC, with 20%
of cobalt exported coming from artisanal mines in the southern part of the
country. In 2012, Unicef estimated that there were 40,000 children
working in all the mines across the south, many involved in mining cobalt.
In a joint-investigation with African Resources Watch (Afrewatch), an
African NGO focusing on human rights in the minerals and extractive
industries, Amnesty International says it interviewed 90 adults and
children working in five artisanal cobalt mine sites. Workers spoke of
labouring for 12 hours a day with no protective clothing, and with many
experiencing significant health problems as a result.
The report says that child miners as young as seven carried back-breaking
loads and worked in intense heat for between one or two dollars a day
without face masks or gloves. Several children said they had been beaten by
security guards employed by mining companies and forced to pay â€œfinesâ€ by
unauthorised mines police sent by state officials to extort money and
The human rights groups say they traced the supply chain from these
mining sites to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), one of the largest mineral
processors in the DRC and a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral
company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt).
The report says that Huayou Cobalt sources more than 40% of its cobalt
from the DRC and processes the raw mineral before selling it to battery
makers, who claim to supply companies including Apple, Microsoft and
Vodafone. This supply chain has not been independently verified by the
Responding to the allegations, Huayou Cobalt told Amnesty
International that â€œour company has not been aware that any of our
legitimate suppliers has hired child labour in their mining sites or operated
in unsafe working conditions â€¦ CDM has rigorously selected its ore
suppliers to ensure the procurement of raw materials through legitimate
Of the 16 companies listed in the report as sourcing from battery
manufacturers using processed cobalt from Huayou Cobalt, two
multinational companies denied sourcing any cobalt from the DRC and five
said they had no links with Huayou Cobalt. The remaining companies
either accepted Amnestyâ€™s claims or were investigating the claims.
In its response to Amnestyâ€™s allegations, which Amnesty has published in
full alongside responses from the other named companies, Apple said it was
currently evaluating whether cobalt in the companyâ€™s products originated in
â€œUnderage labour is not tolerated in our supply chain and we are proud to
have led the industry in pioneering new safeguards,â€ it says.
Vodafone, in its response to Amnesty, stated that the company â€œis unaware
as to whether or not cobalt in our products originates in Katanga in the
DRC â€¦ both the smelters and the mines from which the metals such as
cobalt are originally sourced are several steps away from Vodafone in the
Amnesty International and Afrewatch claim that despite the denials by
some of the named multinationals, none of those companies named could
independently verify where the cobalt in their products come from.
â€œWhat is very worrying is that none of the companies that we identified
through our research and named in investor documents could trace the
cobalt they use in their products back to the mines where it originated.
Around half of all cobalt comes from the DRC, and no company can validly
claim that they are unaware of the human rights and child labour abuses
linked with mineral extraction in the region,â€ says Mark Dummett, business
and human rights researcher at Amnesty International.
He said that some of the company responses to Amnestyâ€™s assertions were
â€œstaggeringâ€. For example, when asked by Amnesty International whether it
sourced cobalt from CDM or Huayou Cobalt, Microsoft responded by
saying: â€œWe have not traced the cobalt used through our supply chain to the
smelter level due to the complexity and the resources required.â€
â€œThese are some of the biggest companies in the world, with combined
profits of $125 billion and there is no excuse that companies arenâ€™t
investing some of that profit into ensuring that they can trace where the
minerals they are using are coming from,â€ says Dummett. â€œAnyone with a
smartphone would be appalled to think that children as young as seven
carrying out back-breaking work for 12 hours a day could be involved at
some point in the making of it.â€
The DRC has a long history of bloody conflict fuelled by the regionâ€™s
mineral wealth and the region still has an estimated $24 trillion in
Global demand for cobalt is increasing, but the global cobalt market
remains largely unregulated as it falls outside â€œconflict mineralâ€ legislation
regulating the extraction and sale of other mineral such as gold, coltan and
tin from the DRC.
Amnesty and Afrewatch are using the findings of the report to call on
multinational companies to conduct investigations of their supply chains
for lithium-ion batteries, to check for child labour or labour abuses and to
be more transparent about their suppliers.