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Cobalt Workers and the Global Supply Chain

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Once again, investigators are exposing the horrors of the global supply chain that corporations rely on for their raw materials and much of their production. This time it is the cobalt used in the tech and automotive industries. Bad stuff here:

Cobalt mined by child laborers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo may be entering the supply chains of major tech companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, as well as auto manufacturers like Volkswagen and Daimler AG, according to an investigation from Amnesty International and Afrewatch, a DRC-based non-government organization.

The report, released today, lays out how cobalt mined by children as young as seven is sold to a DRC-based subsidiary of Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese company. The subsidiary, Congo Dongfang Mining International (CDM), processes cobalt ore and sells it to companies in China and South Korea, where it is used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for use in smartphones and electric cars. Amnesty contacted 16 multinational companies listed as customers of the battery makers, based on investor documents and public records. Most said they were unaware of any links to the companies cited in the report, while others, like Apple and Microsoft, said they were evaluating their supply chains. Amnesty says that none of the companies provided enough information to independently verify the origin of their cobalt supply.

The investigation is based on interviews with 87 people who work or have worked in informal, artisanal cobalt mines in the DRC, including 17 children between the ages of 9 and 17. Amnesty and Afrewatch obtained photographic and video evidence of the hazardous conditions in which many of the miners work, often without basic protective gear or safety guidelines. The children interviewed for the report said they work up to 12 hours a day to earn between $1 and $2, and typically work above ground, gathering and washing rocks from defunct industrial sites or nearby lakes and rivers.

They carry heavy loads, face physical abuse, and are regularly exposed to dangerous chemicals and dust, the report says, risking long-term lung disease and in some cases, death. Prolonged exposure to cobalt dust has been linked to “hard metal lung disease,” which is potentially fatal, and many artisanal mines are poorly constructed and ventilated. At least 80 artisanal miners died in the DRC between September 2014 and December 2015, according to information gathered from a UN-operated radio station, though the report notes that the true figure is likely much higher since many accidents are not reported.

The parameters for a solution here is actually fairly simple–Apple and Samsung and Daimler and the other corporations need to be held legally accountable to international labor standards over child labor, workplace safety, wages, and treatment of workers on the job. The corporations say it would be too hard to monitor these workplaces, but this is of course ridiculous. They just don’t want to do it. It would not cost a lot of money to have one or two people on site that inspected the mines, made sure there were no children there, and told recalcitrant employers that they would no longer accept their cobalt if they didn’t fix the problems. They just don’t want to bother. Yes, to make this effective, we have to have enforcement mechanisms and that isn’t happening overnight. But these problems and the other problems I lay out in Out of Sight are political problems. It takes no great imagination to work out a regulatory regime once the political problem is solved. That’s where we need to be imaginative and put our political pressure. That’s how we stop kids from dying while mining cobalt. I would hope all of us would consider this a political priority. Alas, I do not believe most progressives even care about this at all outside of just a vague “yeah, that’s pretty bad” sentiment. We did have one victory on this when the Dodd-Frank Act required publicly traded companies to at least disclose whether they use conflict materials. That’s information we can use to ratchet up the political pressure.

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