Smartphones, computers and other products sold by companies including Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT) and Sony (SNE) contain cobalt mined by children working in dangerous conditions, according to Amnesty International.
Major electronics brands fail to do basic checks to ensure that the material used in lithium-ion batteries is not sourced from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, where kids as young as seven and adults work for little money and without basic safety precautions, the human rights group said.
"Mining the basic materials that power an electric car or a smartphone should be a source of prosperity for miners in DRC," Mark Dummett, a business and human rights researcher at Amnesty, said in a statement. "The reality is that it is a back-breaking life of misery for almost no money. Big brands have the power to change this."
In its report, Amnesty said it and African Resources Watch tracked cobalt sold to 16 multinational corporations to mines where children and adults were paid as little as a dollar a day. "Only Apple and Microsoft said that they had taken any sort of proactive steps to address human rights issues in the artisanal mines in southern DRC," the report stated.
Amnesty International and Afrewatch researchers spoke to 87 current and former cobalt miners, 17 of them children, from five mine sites in southern DRC in April and May 2015. They also interviewed 18 cobalt traders and followed vehicles hauling cobalt ore from mines to markets where larger companies buy the ore. The largest of them is Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly owned subsidiary of Huayou Cobalt.
Miners working in areas from which CDM buys cobalt face long-term health risks including death, according to the researchers. At least 80 artisanal miners died underground in southern DRC between September 2014 and December 2015, but the true figure is unknown because many accidents go unrecorded and bodies are left buried in the rubble, Amnesty said.
At least 50 percent of the world's cobalt is produced in the DRC, with 20 percent of exported cobalt coming from artisanal mines in the nation's southern part. Unicef in 2012 estimated that 40,000 children were laboring in mines in that area, and many were mining cobalt.
Cobalt produced at the mine cited in the report were traced to CDM, which sources more than 40 percent of its cobalt from the DRC and processes the mineral before selling it to battery makers, who claim to supply companies including Microsoft and Apple.
"Apple goes beyond what is legally required to drive further change in the DRC and neighboring countries," the company said in an emailed statement. "We are currently evaluating dozens of different materials, including cobalt, in order to identify labor and environmental risks as well as opportunities for Apple to bring about effective, scalable and sustainable change."
Spokespeople for Microsoft and Volkswagen (VLKAY), another corporation identified in the report, said they were working to reply to requests for comment.
"Sony has a strong commitment to ethical business conduct and we have a stringent policy and management system to minimize the risk of child labor throughout our supply chain," emailed Mack Araki, a spokesperson for Sony Corporation of America. "With respect to cobalt supply chain and human rights issues reported in the Amnesty report, we take this issue seriously and conducted due investigation. So far, we have not found obvious results that our products contain the cobalt originated from Katanga in the DRC."
"We neither source directly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) nor from suppliers in the DRC," auto manufacturer Daimler emailed.
"Both the smelters and the mines from which metals such as cobalt are originally sourced are several steps away from Vodafone in the supply chain," the British telecom (VOD) emailed. "For this reason, we are unaware as to whether or not cobalt in our products originates in Katanga in DRC or whether CDM and Huayou Cobalt process cobalt within our supply chains."
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