Amnesty International has criticised Apple, Samsung and Sony and other technology giants for failing to carry out basic checks to ensure that minerals used in their products are not mined using child labour.
The campaign group's accusations concern the mining of cobalt, an essential element in the production of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, and say that the companies are not doing enough to investigate the supply chain.
Amnesty's report on cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) said that up to 150,000 miners dig up the mineral by hand using basic tools, and that workforces consist of children as young as seven who scavenge cobalt rocks discarded from more industrial operation in the country.
The report quoted figures from Unicef estimating that there are 40,000 children working in the mines for up to 12 hours a day.
Many of the mines run for tens of metres underground with no support and poor ventilation, putting the workers at risk.
There are no official figures on the number of deaths that have occurred in such mines, but the report said that at least 80 miners had died between September 2014 and December 2015, although it believes the figure could be much higher.
Amnesty explained that 20 percent of the DRC’s cobalt exports come from mines in the southern part of the country. The poverty in the area means that many of the miners, including children, are forced to work in the mines to support families or pay for education.
The DRC government drafted plans to eradicate the worst forms of child labour in the country, but no actions were officially adopted.
Regulations exist to ensure artisanal mining takes place only in authorised areas, but what appears to be corruption and a lack of government oversight has meant that unauthorised and unsafe mines continue to operate.
Supply chain challenges
The DRC government may be a culprit in failing to control artisanal mining, but Amnesty found after tracing cobalt supply chains to the source that much of the cobalt ended up being sold to large mineral companies.
One of these is Huayou Cobalt which provides cobalt to battery manufacturers, which in turn supply major providers of consumer technology, the most notable being Apple, Samsung and Sony.
Each of these firms has a strong stance on child labour. Apple, for example, will make a supplier send a child home on full pay, fund their education and offer them a job with safe and legal working conditions if it finds that the company has been using child labour.
However, in cases where there is no direct link between different parts of the cobalt supply chain, the degrees of separation lead to loopholes that can be exploited, meaning that some suppliers can effectively bypass any scrutiny by the technology companies.
Samsung claimed that part of the problem lies with the convoluted web of cobalt suppliers that feed into its supply chain.
”In reality, it is very hard to trace the source of the mineral due to suppliers’
non-disclosure of information and the complexity of the supply chains,” the company said.
Amnesty’s report criticised such loopholes and called for more due diligence from technology firms that could use their significant purchasing power to dictate the removal of child workers and unsafe working conditions at the source of the cobalt supply chain.
Sony said it could not find any obvious examples of child labour in its cobalt supply chain, but said it will keep looking into the issue: “We will continue the assessment and pay close attention to this matter.”
Apple’s response to Amnesty’s report was similar to Samsung and Sony, with it claiming to have addressed cases of child labour in its supply chain in the past, and noting it will continue to ensure it remains diligent: "We take any concerns seriously and investigate every allegation.”
Some of the other companies named in the reports, including HP Inc, Lenovo and Vodafone, have said they will investigate Amnesty’s concerns and take action to sever any relationships with suppliers that use cobalt supply chains that involve child labour. Others denied sourcing cobalt from suppliers linked to child labour.
Sadly, labour concerns and abuse surrounding the manufacture and supply of materials for consumer technology is nothing new. Apple was heavily criticised by a worker's rights group over labour violations involving an iPad Mini supplier.
That being said, Apple claimed to have made some headway in cleaning up factory working conditions for its supply chain labourers.
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