Cobalt is an essential element in today’s lithium ion batteries. But where does it come from? According to Amnesty International, 50% of the world supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
No one should be surprised to learn the global economy permits many abusive procedures that endanger the health and dignity of those at the bottom of the economic structure. Companies like Apple have gotten bad press for the labor practices of Foxconn, a company that assembles electronic products for many of the world’s leading tech companies. It burst into the headlines after 14 people who worked at a Foxconn factory in the Chinese city of Shenzhen committed suicide.
In a new report dated January 18 and entitled This is What We Die For: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt, Amnesty International details the arduous, dangerous, and unhealthy conditions at the cobalt mines in the DCR. During its investigation, it discovered that children as young as 7 were working in the mines with no protective clothing for up to 24 hours at a time. “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.
According to the report, traders buy cobalt from areas in the DRC where child labor is commonplace and sell it to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt). Huayou Cobalt and CDM process the cobalt before selling it to three battery component manufacturers, Ningbo Shanshan and Tianjin Bamo in China and L&F Materials in South Korea. Those three companies then sell the processed material to battery makers who say they supply technology and car companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Daimler and Volkswagen.
“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 Emmanuel Umpula, executive director of Afrewatch. “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.”
“Many of these multinationals say they have a zero tolerance policy for child labor. But this promise is not worth the paper it is written when the companies are not investigating their suppliers. Their claim is simply not credible,” says AI’s Dummett. “Without laws that require companies to check and publicly disclose information about where they source minerals and their suppliers, companies can continue to benefit from human rights abuses. Governments must put an end to this lack of transparency, which allows companies to profit from misery.”
Both Amnesty International and Afrewatch are asking companies that use lithium ion batteries in their products to do their human rights due diligence, investigate whether the cobalt is extracted under hazardous conditions or with child labor, and be more transparent about their suppliers. Most of the companies contacted by AI said they had no idea where their cobalt comes from. Of course, they have done nothing to find out, either.
Ultimately, it is not up to corporations to protect the weak and the powerless. It is the duty of consumers to insist that the products they buy do not result from the exploitation of human laborers. If you wish to know more about this subject, you can learn a great deal from Naomi Klein’s well documented research in her ground breaking book No Logo.