Smartphone batteries linked to human rights violations

Children where they should be during the day: in school. [Lead Beyond/Flickr]

An NGO report published today (19 January) has revealed the grim link between the batteries in our mobile devices and electric cars, and illegal child labour. EURACTIV’s partner El País -Planeta Futuro reports.

The relationship between smartphones and children is a debate that is still ongoing, particularly in regard to using new technology and social networks. There is also a far darker side to the world of mobile phones: one in which children in developing countries work 12 hour shifts in often subhuman conditions to mine the cobalt needed to produce the batteries. It is a fact of life in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Amnesty International, in conjunction with Afrewatch, have released a report on the issue, published today (19 January).

The chilling reality is that the cobalt ripped from the ground by tiny, malnourished fingers could well have ended up in the pocket of any Westerner or the hybrid engine of the newest electric vehicle. “Major electronics brands, including Apple, Samsung and Sony, are failing to do basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products,” said the organisations in their report ‘This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt’. It is a lucrative business for a country ranked 136 out of 188 in the Human Development Index and in which only 28% have a mobile phone and just 1.7% have access to the internet, according to data from UNICEF.

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Paul, a 14-year-old orphan, began working in the mines when he was 12. His story is one of the cases cited by Amnesty in the report. “I spent 24 hours down in the tunnels. I would go down in the morning and I would leave the next morning. My foster mother wanted me to go to school, but my foster father was against it and exploited me by sending me down the mine.”

The damning denunciation of the precarious situation in which the miners work and the use of child labour in the DRC is nothing new. The United Nations’ Security Council indicated 15 years ago the link between illegal mining, extraction of resources, conflict and human rights violations. But Amnesty International and Afrewatch have gone a step beyond just acknowledging the elephant in the room.

“Investigators have gone in-depth into the traceability of cobalt and how illegal mines, where 20% is produced, sell to authorised companies or the major corporations,” said Gerardo Ríos of Amnesty International in Spain. As detailed in the report, 87 miners, 17 of them children, were questioned in five mines in the DCR between April and May 2015. The authors also interviewed 18 traders and other outlets which sell the mineral to large companies. The most important of those is Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd. It then sells the processed cobalt onto multinationals, which produce batteries from it.

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The list of “shame”, as coined by Ríos in the report, consists of: Microsoft, Apple, Huawei, Lenovo, Daimler, Volkswagen, HP Inc, Samsung electronics, Samsung SDI, Sony, Tianjin Lishen Battery Joint-Stock Co, Vodafone Group, Tianjin Bamo Science and Technology, Coslight, Inventec and LG.

When the 16 companies were confronted with the evidence, only one acknowledged the connection. None were able to provide enough details to independently verify where the cobalt was actually sourced from originally. “Many of these multinationals say that they have a zero-tolerance policy towards child labour. But this promise does not appear to be worth the paper on which it is written. Their claims are, quite simply, not credible,” said investigator Mark Dummett in the report.

In total, “One company admitted the connection, while four were unable to say for certain whether they were buying cobalt from the DRC or Huayou Cobalt. Six said they were investigating the claims. Five denied sourcing cobalt from via Huayou Cobalt, though they are listed as customers in the company documents of battery manufacturers. Two multinationals denied sourcing cobalt from DRC.” Ríos said that the majority of responses were evasive. Amnesty International Spain announced that they would go back to the companies they had questioned in the future, in order to follow up on their investigation.

“The dangers to health and safety make mining one of the worst forms of child labour. Companies whose global profits total $125 billion cannot credibly claim that they are unable to check where key minerals in their productions come from,” said Dummett.

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The capacity for change does not just lie with the companies; it is up to national governments to intervene, in this case, the Congolese, said Ríos. He added that international organisations such as the OECD, the World Trade Organisation and the IMF have a role to play in ensuring that human rights violations are not repeated again and again.

“DRC is the largest producer of cobalt in the world and has 50% of global reserves. Australia ranks 2nd with 20%,” said Ríos.

In short, the NGO called for more regulation of producers and buyers at international and local level. Ríos rejected the idea of a boycott of Congolese cobalt, saying that such a move would “ruin the country” and that they are in the business of “helping people”. UNICEF estimates that 40,000 children were working in DRC mines in 2014. “Companies that are benefitting should contribute and pay a fair price,” Ríos concluded. In this way, parents trying to drag themselves out of extreme poverty would be less likely to send their children down into the mines, where their future-development, health and very lives are jeopardised. 

At a time when, literally, millions of refugees are making their way towards Europe as a result of war, persecution and poverty, the knock-on effects of such human rights abuses cannot be underestimated. 

Electricity as an energy option for vehicles offers the possibility to substitute oil with a wide diversity of primary energy sources. Battery life, range and charging time remain some of the largest obstacles to a mass roll out of electric cars. Cobalt is one of the main raw materials that are used to produce lithium-ion batteries.

Electrification of transport (electromobility) has been identified as a priority in the EU's research programme, Horizon 2020. The EU is also supporting a Europe-wide electromobility initiative, Green eMotion, worth €41.8 million, in partnership with 42 partners from industry, utilities, electric car manufacturers, municipalities, universities and technology and research institutions.

The ILO’s Statistical Information and Monitoring Program on Child Labor recently estimated that 211 million children, or 18 % of children aged 5-14, are economically active worldwide. 

An estimated 6 million work-related injuries occur among children annually, which results in 2.5 million disabilities and 32,000 fatalities every year.

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