Last updated: October 2016
Cobalt Mining in the Congo
Cobalt is a key component in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and is used in smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles. These small cobalt-rich batteries are seen as ‘green’. They make it possible for smartphones to fit in your pocket and laptops to fit on your lap. But there is an exceptional cost for the tech world’s reliance on these batteries.
Argentinean street artist Eduardo Relero’s drawing in front of an Apple Store to raise awareness of the exploitation of child miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In January 2016, Amnesty International and African Resources Watch (Afrewatch) published a report detailing human rights abuses associated with artisanal cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Abuses included forced relocations of villages, water pollution and child labour.
Currently, no country legally requires companies to publicly report on their cobalt supply chains and yet the Amnesty report calls into question corporate assertions that they are capable of monitoring their supply chains for human rights abuses or child labour.
More than half of the world’s total supply of cobalt comes from the DRC and, according to the government’s own estimates, 20% of the cobalt currently exported from the DRC comes from artisanal miners in the southern part of the country.
Companies have promised to vet their cobalt connections. But, this summer, Washington Post journalists visited cobalt mines in Congo and confirmed that the problems were still evident.
Arduous and unsafe working conditions are prevalent in artisanal mining. Researchers interviewed women who carried 50kg sacks of cobalt and men who worked in hand-dug, unsupported mines that are prone to collapse. Researchers also spoke to children, some as young as seven, who work the mines when they are not in school, and others who work full-time in the mines.
The majority of miners had no protective equipment, even basic kit such as gloves, work clothes or facemasks. Many reported breathing problems associated with chronic exposure to dust containing cobalt, which can result in miners developing potentially fatal ‘hard metal lung disease’.
One of the largest companies at the centre of this trade is Congo Dongfang Mining International, part of one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, China-based Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company Ltd (Huayou Cobalt). Huayou sells cobalt to battery manufacturers in China and South Korea which make batteries for well-known consumer brands, including Apple and Samsung.
Few companies regularly track where their cobalt comes from, but the tracking of conflict minerals has shown that it is possible. The mining of cobalt is currently not regulated by Section 1502 of the US Dodd-Frank Act on conflict minerals but some companies, including Apple, say it should be added to the conflict minerals list, even if it is not funding war.
Whilst Congo is a minor supplier of conflict minerals, the world depends on Congo for cobalt and some analysts have suggested that this is why cobalt has been left out of the regulations.
Mark Dummett, business and human rights researcher at Amnesty said: “The glamorous 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 man-made tunnels risking permanent lung damage.”
“Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made. It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products.
“Companies whose global profits total $125 billion (£86.7 billion) cannot credibly claim that they are unable to check where key minerals in their productions come from,” he said.
Amnesty International contacted 16 multinationals that were customers of the battery manufacturers listed as sourcing processed ore from Huayou Cobalt. Ten of them appear in our guides – Apple, Samsung, Sony, LG, Dell, HP, Huawei, Lenovo, Microsoft and ZTE. The Washington Post investigation also found that Amazon was sourcing cobalt from Huayou Cobalt. As a result, these companies lost a mark in the Workers’ Rights category on the score tables.
Crucially, none provided enough detail to independently verify where the cobalt in their products came from. Only Apple and Microsoft said that they had taken any sort of proactive steps to address the human rights issues associated with cobalt mining.
Starting next year, Apple will internally treat cobalt like a conflict mineral, requiring all cobalt refiners to agree to independent supply chain audits and to conduct risk assessments.
Apple’s action could have major repercussions throughout the battery world. But voluntary change will be slow. Apple spent five years working to certify that its supply chain was free of conflict minerals, an action that was mandatory, not voluntary, under the Dodd-Frank Act.