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DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO: Child labour behind smart phone and electric car batteries

25 Jan 2016
[International Secretariat]
Region: DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Topic: Business and Human Rights

Major electronics brands, including Apple, Samsung and Sony, are failing to do basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products, said Amnesty International and Afrewatch in a report published today.

The report traces the sale of cobalt, used in lithium-ion batteries, from mines where children as young as seven and adults work in perilous conditions.

The report documents how traders buy cobalt from areas where child labour is rife and sell it to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt).  

Amnesty International’s investigation uses investor documents to show how Huayou Cobalt and CDM process the cobalt before selling 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.

“The glamourous 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 manmade tunnels risking permanent lung damage,” said Mark Dummett, Business & Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.

Amnesty International contacted 16 multinationals who were listed as customers of the battery manufacturers listed as sourcing processed ore from Huayou Cobalt. 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 via 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. 

Fatal mines and child labour

The DRC produces at least 50% of the world’s cobalt. One of the largest mineral processors in the country is Huayou Cobalt subsidiary CDM. Huayou Cobalt gets more than 40% of its cobalt from DRC.

Miners working in areas from which CDM buys cobalt face the risk of long-term health damage and a high risk of fatal accidents. At least 80 artisanal died underground miners in southern DRC between September 2014 and December 2015 alone. The true figure is unknown as many accidents go unrecorded and bodies are left buried in the rubble.

Amnesty International researchers also found that the vast majority of miners spend long hours every day working with cobalt without the most basic of protective equipment, such as gloves, work clothes or facemasks to protect them from lung or skin disease.

Children told Amnesty International they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads to earn between one and two dollars a day. In 2014 approximately 40,000 children worked in mines across southern DRC, many of them mining cobalt, according to UNICEF.

Following the supply chain – corporate shame

Huayou Cobalt supplies cobalt to three lithium-ion battery component manufacturers which bought more than US$90 million worth of cobalt from Huayou Cobalt in 2013.

Amnesty International then contacted 16 multinational consumer brands listed as direct or indirect customers of the three battery component manufacturers. None said they had been in touch with Huayou Cobalt or traced where the cobalt in their products had come from prior to Amnesty International’s contact.

Today there is no regulation of the global cobalt market. Cobalt does not fall under existing “conflict minerals” rules in the USA, which cover gold, coltan/tantalum, tin and tungsten mined in DRC.

Amnesty International and Afrewatch are calling on multinational companies who use lithium-ion batteries in their products to conduct human rights due diligence, investigate whether the cobalt is extracted under hazardous conditions or with child labour, and be more transparent about their suppliers.

The organizations are also calling on China to require Chinese extractive companies operating overseas to investigate their supply chains and address human rights abuses in their operations. The organizations say Huayou Cobalt should confirm who is involved in mining and trading its cobalt (and where) and make sure it is not buying cobalt mined by child labour or in dangerous conditions.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PRESS RELEASE
19 January 2016

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