Your smartphone battery could be fueling child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), according to the report “This is What We Die For,” released Tuesday by Amnesty International.
The report found children as young as 7 working long hours in harsh conditions to make iPhones and other products. “I would spend 24 hours down in the tunnels. I arrived in the morning and would leave the following morning,” a 14-year-old miner named Paul told Amnesty International.
After partnering with the campaign group Afrewatch to interview 87 current and former cobalt miners, including 17 children, Amnesty International accused several technology behemoths, including Apple, Samsung SDI and Sony, of “lax oversight of the supply of cobalt from mines in Congo to smelters and on to battery-makers,” according to the New York Times.
This means consumer electronics with lithium-ion batteries, like smartphones, may contain traces of cobalt produced in Congolese mines without tech companies realizing it. The report also implicated Daimler, Dell, HP, Huawei, LG Chem, Microsoft, Vodafone and ZTE.
Surging popularity of lithium-ion batteries to power consumer electronics has grown demand for cobalt faster than 5 percent a year and is expected to continue to do so with the rise of consumer electronics and electric cars. The DRC produces more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt, making it a vital source for rechargeable battery manufacturers.
"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," Afrewatch executive director Emmanuel Umpula said in a news release.
One cellphone company is welcoming the new report. Fairphone produces smartphones only using ethically sourced minerals and sees recycled cobalt as the way of the future.
“Fairphone welcomes the publication by Amnesty International highlighting the relationship between cobalt mining and child labor in the DRC,” Bibi Bleekemolen, who works on impact innovation at Fairphone, told Newsweek. “Such reports help to put these problems higher on the international agenda.”
Congo has been under scrutiny as a source for so-called “conflict minerals” in recent years after laws in the U.S. required companies to ensure their supply chains were ethically sourced, according to the Times. But Amnesty International’s report says that cobalt has not received the same regulatory attention that gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum have.
Apple issued a statement to the BBC in response to the new report and said the company had zero tolerance for child labor and was evaluating how to improve its manufacturing process. "We are currently evaluating dozens of different materials, including cobalt, in order to identify labour and environmental risks as well as opportunities for Apple to bring about effective, scalable and sustainable change."
Samsung told the BBC it also had a zero-tolerance policy towards child labor. "If a violation of child labour is found, contracts with suppliers who use child labour will be immediately terminated," it said.
Sony also spoke to the BBC: "We are working with the suppliers to address issues related to human rights and labour conditions at the production sites, as well as in the procurement of minerals and other raw materials."
Mark Dummett, one of Amnesty International’s researchers, argued that these companies have the resources to carrying out basic background checks to ensure ethical labor practices.“The glamorous shop displays and marketing of state-of-the-art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks,” Dummett said. “Companies whose global profits total $125 billion cannot credibly claim that they are unable to check where key minerals in their productions come from.”