Apple, Samsung Accused of Using Cobalt Mined By Children

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An attendee demonstrates the new Apple Inc. iPhone 6 Plus after a product announcement at Flint Center in Cupertino, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. Apple Inc. unveiled redesigned iPhones with bigger screens, overhauling its top-selling product in an event that gives the clearest sign yet of the company's product direction under Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook.

A new report by Amnesty International has accused Apple, Samsung and other electronics companies of using cobalt in their lithium batteries that may have been partially mined by children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Amnesty said the companies and various government agencies are failing to conduct checks and balances in the extraction of the mineral, which is processed and shipped to China to produce batteries for smartphones, electric cars and other products.

Titled "This is What We Die For," the Amnesty investigation focuses on mines in the southeastern Katanga region, where roughly 20 percent of the nation’s cobalt is extracted. It is at these mines that Amnesty believes adults and children are working in dangerous -- and often deadly -- conditions. The report explains how the cobalt is mined, then sold to a Chinese-owned mineral company, which sells it to various battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. From there it is sold to battery makers, who provide the parts found in products by Apple, Samsung, Sony and Microsoft, among others.

Amnesty interviewed 17 children during a lengthy investigation of conditions at the Katanga mines. Kids as young as 12 say they worked up to 12 hours a day, carrying heavy loads to earn as little as one dollar a day. Some juggled school with work, but others worked at the mines year round. A 14-year-old named Paul told researches that he would often spend 24 hours in the mine. "I arrived in the morning and would leave the following morning." he said. 

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Other children said they often went an entire day without eating and faced physical abuse by security guards at the mines. A 13-year-old boy named Roger said they "used to whip us, and sometimes they used to dunk us in dirty water." Further, none of the children observed by Amnesty researches were seen wearing protective masks or gloves. "There is lots of dust, it is very easy to catch colds, and we hurt all over," Dany, 15, said.

"The government, along with the companies involved, should ensure that children are removed from hazardous working conditions and address the children’s educational and other needs," the report states. "All governments should enact and enforce laws requiring corporate due diligence and public disclosure in relation to cobalt and other minerals."

Amnesty goes on to say that the DRC should enforce labor protections for all artisanal mining operations and not just larger mining areas.

As for companies whose long supply chains potentially mask such violations, Amnesty says they "have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate in the world," adding that "the corporate responsibility to respect human rights exists independently of a state’s ability or willingness to fulfil its own human rights obligations. This means that if a state where a company operates lacks the necessary regulatory framework or is unable or unwilling to enforce applicable laws to protect human rights from abuse, the company must still act to ensure respect for human rights in their operations."

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Amnesty reached out to every company listed in the report, but said that none were able to identify the source mines of the cobalt used in their products.

"In reality, it is very hard to trace the source of the mineral due to the suppliers’ nondisclosure of information and the complexity of the supply chains," a Samsung spokesperson said. "Therefore it is impossible for us to determine whether the cobalt supplied to Samsung SDI comes from DRC Katanga’s mines."

When reached, Sony promised a "fact-finding process… So far, we could not find obvious results that our products contain the cobalt originated from Katanga in the DRC."

Apple said it was "currently evaluating dozens of different materials, including cobalt, in order to identify labor and environmental risks as well as opportunities for Apple to bring about effective, scalable and sustainable change."

Vodafone explained that it was unsure whether any cobalt originated from the Katanga region. "Both the smelters and mines from which the metals such as cobalt are originally sourced are several steps away from Vodafone in the supply chain."

The full list of companies in Amnesty’s study also includes Daimler, Dell, HP, Huawei, LG Chem, ZTE and Microsoft. Read the full report here.