Multinationals including Apple, Microsoft and Vodafone haven’t carried out due diligence in investigating the sources of their cobalt, according to Amnesty
High-tech companies have failed to carry out due diligence to investigate the source of the cobalt in products such as smartphone batteries, with the result that many use minerals mined by child labourers working in life-threatening conditions, according to an investigation by Amnesty International.
In a joint investigation with African Resources Watch (Afrewatch), Amnesty said it traced cobalt mined by children and young adults in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to three battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea who listed well-known names such as Apple, Microsoft, Vodafone, Daimler and Volkswagen as customers.
Amnesty contacted 16 of the companies, and found that although some denied sourcing their cobalt in the mines in question, none could independently verify where the cobalt in their products comes from.
“What is very worrying is that none of the companies that we identified through our research and named in investor documents could trace the cobalt they use in their products back to the mines where it originated,” said Amnesty researcher Mark Dummett in a statement. “Around half of all cobalt comes from the DRC, and no company can validly claim that they are unaware of the human rights and child labour abuses linked with mineral extraction in the region.”
Cobalt doesn’t fall under the US “conflict minerals” legislation that regulates the extraction and sale of other minerals such as gold, tin and tungsten, meaning companies don’t apply the same due diligence practices to it.
Vodafone and Microsoft, for instance, said they were not aware of the origin of the cobalt they used due to its distance from them in the supply chain, but Amnesty pointed out that such a response wouldn’t be acceptable under the rules governing “conflict minerals”.
Vodafone, Amnesty said in the report, “draws a distinction between its supply chain due diligence practices as conducted for 3T (tin, tungsten and tantalum) and gold and practices, if any, that would be carried out for cobalt.”
Other companies, such as Apple and HP, said they were evaluating Amnesty’s claims and would take action if required.
Around 20 percent of the cobalt exported by DRC comes from mines in the southern part of the country. Unicef estimated in 2012 that there were 40,000 children working in mines in that part of the country, many involved in extracting cobalt.
Amnesty called on multinational companies to investigate their supply chains for lithium-ion batteries to check for child labour or other labour abuses.
Apple has in recent years been accused of labour abuses in the manufacture of high-profile products such as the iPad and the iPhone in China. Most recently the company was the subject of a 2014 BBC Panorama investigation into conditions on an iPhone 6 production line at the Pegatron factories on the outskirts of Shanghai.
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