Amnesty claims batteries contain cobalt mined by child labour

Posted on 20 Jan 2016 by Michael Cruickshank

A new report released today by Amnesty International claims that minerals used within lithium-ion batteries are often sourced from mines utilising child labour.

Working together with fellow NGO, Afrewatch (Africa Resource Watch), the organisation traced cobalt used in these batteries to small artisanal mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Within these mines, children as young as twelve work for less than $2 a day in cramped and dangerous conditions.

Through a complex supply chain revealed by Amnesty, this cobalt makes its way into the batteries used in many tech products such as smartphones, laptops and electric cars.

The mined cobalt ore is first allegedly sold to middlemen working for a Chinese company called ‘Congo Dongfang Mining’ which smelts the ore in the DRC before shipping it to its parent company in China, Huayou Cobalt.

Huayou Cobalt then sells its refined cobalt to a series of battery component manufacturers in China, who then supply parts used by larger battery manufacturers. Finally these large battery manufacturers sell their produce to some of the largest tech and automotive companies in the world, including Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, LG and VW.

“The glamourous 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 and human rights researcher at Amnesty International.

As part of their report, Amnesty and Afrewatch contacted a number of these tech companies with the findings. While LG has stated that they are looking into the issue, other companies, such as Samsung denied the use of this cobalt. Meanwhile Microsoft claimed that the supply chain was too complex to trace.

The two NGOs have called on companies to increase their level of supply chain monitoring for these unethically-sourced minerals.

“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, Afrewatch executive director.

Currently 50 percent of the world’s cobalt is extracted from the DRC, and Chinese company Huayou Cobalt receives 40 percent of its cobalt from this country.

The UN claims that up to 40,000 children worked in mines in the DRC in 2014, however the number of these working in cobalt mines is so far unknown.