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'This is what we die for': children put in danger for smartphones

The human rights organisation has accused Apple and Samsung, among others, of failing to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products.

Image: Shutterstock/Blackzheep

CHILDREN AS YOUNG as seven are working in highly dangerous conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo to mine a mineral used in smartphones, laptops and cars, according to a major new Amnesty International study.

The report, This is what we die for, claims that child labour is being used to source the cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries sold to major global brands including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony.

Children interviewed by the human rights group said they worked up to 12 hours a day in cobalt mines, carrying heavy loads without protective gloves or masks, for as little as $1 a day.

Several children said that they had been beaten by security guards employed by mining companies and forced to hand over extortion money to government and security officials.

Amnesty researchers followed the supply chain from these mines to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), one of the country’s largest mineral processors and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt).

Investigators said Huayou Cobalt and CDM process the cobalt before selling it to battery component manufacturers, which in turn sell them to suppliers claiming to work with international companies including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony.

Responding to the report, Huayou Coubalt told Amnesty that it had decided to stop buying directly from miners, and instead only purchase cobalt from licensed traders.

The company said it had introduced a new code of conduct for supplies to ensure they employed no children.

‘Unaware’

Of the 16 companies named in the report, two denied sourcing any cobalt from the DRC and five said they had no connection to Huayou Cobalt, despite being listed as custmers in the company documents of battery manufacturers, according to Amnesty.

The other companies either accepted the allegations or said they were investigating the claims.

Apple told the group that it was ”evaluating dozens of different materials, including cobalt, in order to identity labour and environmental risks”.

Samsung denied doing direct business with CDM or Huayou Cobalt, though it could not determine whether the cobalt it uses comes from DRC Katanga’s mine.

Vodafone stated that it was “unaware as to whether or not cobalt in our products originates in Katanga in the DRC”.

“Both the smelters and the mines from which the metals such as cobalt are originally sourced are several steps away from Vodafone in the supply chain,” the company said.

Microsoft responded: “We have not traced the cobalt used through our supply chain to the smelter level due to the complexity and the resources required.”

Amnesty and Afrewatch, which assisted with the investigation, 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 with child labour and be more transparent about their suppliers.

Read: Exploitation on trawlers: Ministers were aware of illegal worker claims two years ago

Read: Find out if your high-street clothes are ethically made

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Catherine Healy

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