Apple, Samsung and Sony under fire over child miners in Africa

Amnesty International accuses major tech companies of failing to ensure that their batteries don't contain cobalt mined by underage workers.

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Amnesty's report focuses on cobalt, from mines such as this one in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is used to make smartphone batteries.

Reuters/Corbis

Apple, Samsung, Sony and others are failing to ensure minerals used in their products are not mined by children, according to human rights group Amnesty International.

Children as young as 7 are working in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, the organization, which is focused on tackling injustice in society, said in a report Tuesday. The children are mining for cobalt, a vital component of the lithium ion batteries found inside smartphones and other devices.

"Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made," said Mark Dummett, business and human rights researcher at Amnesty, in a press release. "It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products." The full list of companies under fire in the report also includes Microsoft, LG Chem, Huawei, Dell, HP, ZTE, Vodafone and Daimler.

Apple, Samsung and Sony said they have a zero-tolerance policy toward child labor and conduct what they believe are rigorous and frequent checks on suppliers.

Fierce competition in the international electronics market has led brands to rely on manufacturers, components and raw materials from every part of the globe. Amnesty's report, however, suggests their efforts to eliminate poor practices haven't gone far enough. And that kind of accusation can hurt big-name brands, as Nike learned with its child-labor problem in the 1990s. Apple has come under fire in the past for poor working conditions at the Foxconn plant in China where iPhones are made. Ultimately, no part of the supply chain is immune from scrutiny.

The Amnesty report focuses in particular on the problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces half of the world's cobalt. About 40,000 children work in mines in the southern part of the country, UNICEF estimates. The conditions are dangerous, with 80 miners dying between September 2014 and December 2015. Those who survive face a cramped and inhospitable working environment and risk lifelong health problems. Children interviewed for the report said they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads to earn between $1 and $2 per day.

Amnesty International's primary complaint is that none of the major tech companies it spoke to had traced the origin of the cobalt in their lithium-ion batteries.

"Many of these multinationals say they have a zero-tolerance policy for child labor," said Dummett. "But this promise is not worth the paper it is written [on] when the companies are not investigating their suppliers. Their claim is simply not credible."

Panasonic, a large battery supplier, is absent from the list.

Companies respond

Apple, Samsung and Sony each outlined their processes for dealing with suppliers found to be exploiting child labor, and explained what they were doing to investigate claims made in the report.

"If a violation of child labor is found, contracts with suppliers who use child labor will be immediately terminated," Samsung said. It added that it prohibits the use of minerals from conflict zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, but that due to suppliers' non-disclosure agreements it was "impossible" to determine whether cobalt used in its products originated from there.

"Underage labor is never tolerated in our supply chain, and we are proud to have led the industry in pioneering new safeguards," Apple said in a statement.

Instead of focusing on punishing the supplier, Apple tries to ensure that any children who have been exploited are adequately compensated by the supplier. It requires the supplier to fund the worker's safe return home, fully finance their education at a school chosen by them and their family, continue to pay their wages and offer them a job when they reach the legal age.

"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," it said.

Sony takes its ethical responsibility towards minimising the risk of child labor being used in its supply chain very seriously, it said in a statement.

"With respect to cobalt supply chain and human rights abuses mentioned in your letter, we take this issue seriously and have been conducting a fact-finding process," Sony said. "So far, we could not find obvious results that our products contain the cobalt originated from Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We will continue the assessment and pay close attention to this matter."

Microsoft too said that despite the "stringent practices" it used to eliminate child labor from its supply chain, it could not say with "absolute assurance" that its cobalt had not originated in the mines in question. "We have not traced the cobalt used in Microsoft products through our supply chain to the smelter level due to the complexity and resources required," the company said in a statement.

Amnesty criticized nondisclosure agreements that allowed suppliers to shield the origins of minerals used in products from the prying eyes of multinationals, saying they let companies off the hook too easily.

"Without laws that require companies to check and publicly disclose information about where they source minerals and their suppliers, companies can continue to benefit from human rights abuses," Dummett said. "Governments must put an end to this lack of transparency, which allows companies to profit from misery."

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