Electronics giants linked to cobalt mined by children
New Amnesty report finds labour rights issues in supply chain
Apple, LG and Samsung have been implicated in human rights abuses in small mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to a new report by Amnesty International.
The report, 'This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt', investigates conditions in small-scale cobalt mines in the Katanga region in the southern DRC.
Cobalt is a key component in lithium-ion batteries used in portable electronic devices and electric vehicles. 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.
Poor working conditions
Arduous and unsafe working conditions are prevalent in artisinal 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'.
Zones d'exploitation artisinale
Artisanal mining became a source of livelihood for many people when the largest state-owned mining company collapsed in the 1990s and later during the Second Congo War (1998 – 2003). However, since 2002 artisanal miners have been driven out of many mining sites which were made available to major western and Chinese companies and artisinal mining was only permitted in certain Zones d'exploitation artisinale (ZEAs) where industrial or semi-industrial mining is not viable.
The government has created very few ZEAs in southern DRC, therefore most artisanal miners in this region end up working in unauthorized and unregulated areas or trespassing on land controlled by industrial mining companies. This exposes miners to physical violence and the levying of 'fines' by corrupt officials.
Amnesty International followed ore from artisinal mines to local marketplaces where it was bought by traders, regardless of where it has come from or how it has been mined. These traders then sell the ore on to larger companies in the DRC, which process and export it.
One of the largest companies at the centre of this trade is Congo Dongfang Mining International (CDM), which smelts the ore at its plant in the DRC before exporting it to China, where it is further smelted and then sold to battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. These companies sell to battery manufacturers, which then sell on to well-known electronics brands, including Apple, Samsung and LG, as well as car manufacturers VW and Mercedes.
Although Amnesty's research was based on publicly available information, Samsung and VW deny a connection with artisinal mining in this part of the DRC. Some companies said that they could not confirm the allegations, while others they would investigate the situation.
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