by Greg Klein | January 19, 2016
Children as young as seven in the Democratic Republic of Congo toil in perilous conditions to produce cobalt for lithium-ion batteries, according to an Amnesty International report released January 19. The study casts a pall on companies like Apple, Samsung and Sony which “are failing to do basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products,” the organization alleged.
Child miners work up to 12 hours daily in dangerous conditions, making between $1 and $2 a day, the report states. “In 2014 approximately 40,000 children worked in mines across southern DRC, many of them mining cobalt, according to UNICEF.” Most of the workers lack protective clothing to guard against lung or skin disease.
“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, executive director of Africa Resources Watch, which collaborated with Amnesty on the report. “The abuses in mines remain out of sight and out of mind because in today’s global marketplace consumers have no idea about the conditions at the mine, factory and assembly line.”
The global cobalt market is unregulated, Amnesty stated, and unlike the DRC’s gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten, cobalt falls outside American conflict minerals rules.
The report charges that Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd and its subsidiary Congo Dongfang Mining “buy cobalt from areas where child labour is rife,” process it and sell it to three battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. “In turn, they sell to battery makers who claim to supply technology and car companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Daimler and Volkswagen.”
Amnesty said it contacted 16 multinationals listed as customers of the battery manufacturers. “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 … Huayou Cobalt, though they are listed as customers in the company documents of battery manufacturers. Two multinationals denied sourcing cobalt from DRC. Crucially, none provided enough details to independently verify where the cobalt in their products came from.”
The DRC produces at least half of the world’s cobalt, with about 20% of the country’s output coming from artisanal mines, Amnesty stated. According to numbers reported in October by Chris Berry, “cobalt demand is growing by 6% overall with demand in the battery supply chain growing by some estimates at a cumulative annual growth rate of 10% out to 2020…. This is driven almost exclusively by cobalt’s use in the cathode of the lithium-ion battery.”
In responses to the CBC, Apple and Sony said they were investigating their sources while Samsung denied doing business with CDM or Huayou Cobalt. Daimler replied, “We neither source from the DRC or the mentioned companies directly.” Volkswagen stated “to our best knowledge” the company doesn’t use cobalt from CDM, Huayou Cobalt or the DRC. “Microsoft said it is unable to confirm ‘with absolute assurance’ if its supply chain is involved,” CBC reported. “LG confirmed that Huayou is one of its suppliers of cobalt” providing material from the Katanga region of the DRC.
In The Elements of Power, a book published late last year, author David S. Abraham and MetalMiner publisher Lisa Reisman stated that long, complex supply lines prevent many major companies from knowing the origin of the minerals they use.