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Report: Tech giants can do more to keep kids from cobalt mines

Amnesty International says while Apple, Samsung and Dell are making progress, more needs to be done to stop child labor abuses in cobalt mines in the Congo.

Tech companies are still not doing enough to stop kids from working in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to international human rights organization Amnesty International.

While tech giants including Apple, Samsung and Dell are making some progress, more needs to be done to stop children as young as 7 years old from working in "horrendous" and in some cases deadly conditions, the organization said in a report released Tuesday.


Apple executives Ashley Orbach and Amy Chan, left, listen to Amnesty International secretary general Salil Shetty's plea to end child cobalt mining in the Congo.  

Terry Collins/CNET

Those steps include companies asking their suppliers to trace where the cobalt comes from, Seema Joshi, Amnesty's head of business and human rights, told a group of tech and auto company leaders attending a roundtable discussion on the matter in San Francisco. 

"When you look at the leaders of these companies, they're still not disclosing this critical information needed to evaluate what they're doing is actually effective in identifying and protecting human rights abuses," Joshi said. "Were children involved in collecting cobalt? We know the problem still exists."

Cobalt is important for the lithium-ion batteries found in phones, laptops and tablets. About 60 percent of the world's cobalt supply comes from the Congo, and about 20 percent of it is mined by hand, said the organization, which first called attention to problems in a January 2016 report.

Amnesty's latest report commended Apple for being the first company to publish the names of its cobalt suppliers and dubbed it the industry leader in responsible cobalt sourcing. The tech giant is working closely with China-based cobalt supplier Huayou Cobalt to address child labor in its supply chain.

"We're proud of the progress we've made and we know our work is never done," Apple said in a statement Tuesday. "We will continue to drive our standards throughout our supply chain and do all that we can to ensure that everyone is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve."

Apple began investigating risks surrounding cobalt in late 2014 and in 2015 began mapping its cobalt supply chain down to the mine level, it said in its 2017 supplier responsibility report. In March, Apple said it would stop buying cobalt mined by hand in the Congo following reports of child labor and dangerous work conditions.

Apple has been focused for years on making its products and its operations more environmentally friendly. The company aims to one day run on all renewable energy, as well as get its suppliers to do the same.

Apple said in its 2017 environmental responsibility report, released in April, that as of 2016, it powered 96 percent of its operations around the world with 100 percent renewable energy, like solar, hydro and wind power. In 24 countries where it operates, Apple has reached the 100 percent renewable level, and nearly 100 percent of the paper used in product packaging is from recycled or "responsibly managed sources." Still, the company acknowledges more can be done.

That sentiment was shared by Kelly Liu, a supply chain manager at Dell. She said her company has been working closely with Huayou Cobalt and conducted a survey with its suppliers and shared its template with other companies as well.

"We recognize this is a complex issue, and this is probably going to be marathon and not a sprint in order to create positive change," she said.

Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary general, told the participants that they have a long way to go to stop child mining abuses in the Congo.

"We don't have much time because as we are speaking, they are digging," he said. "We have to find solutions now."