Amnesty International slaps tech giants with child labour accusations

The world's biggest tech companies are once again facing accusations of using child labour in their supply chains.

Apple and Samsung feature in Amnesty International's new report documenting human rights abuses in the so-called artisanal cobalt mining industry in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

These abuses include unsafe working conditions, the use of child labour, and lack of protection from cobalt dust, causing serious and fatal respiratory illnesses.

The miners are subject to extortion by corrupt officials and children are in danger of physical abuse and denied access to education, according to the report.

Amnesty alleged that there is a lack of corporate due diligence, which leads to cobalt excavated in these dangerous conditions making its way into the lithium-ion batteries that power everyday technology such as smartphones, tablets and electric cars.

"More than half of the world's total supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According to the government's own estimates, 20 per cent of the cobalt currently exported from the DRC comes from artisanal miners in the southern part of the country," the report read.

"Artisanal miners include children as young as seven who scavenge for rocks containing cobalt in the discarded by-products of industrial mines, and who wash and sort the ore before it is sold," it added.

Amnesty claims to have found evidence tracing cobalt extracted in these poor conditions up the supply chain to the likes of Apple, Huawei, Dell, HP Inc, Lenovo, LG, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Vodafone, Daimler and Volkswagen.

The report points to a practical guide to due diligence produced by the OECD, stating: "Companies that purchase cobalt, or components containing the mineral, have no excuse for not conducting such due diligence steps.

"The DRC is by far the world's largest source of cobalt, and the poor conditions of its artisanal mines, and the presence of children working in them, has been reported publicly in the past."

When contacted by Amnesty, the companies accused of having artisanally-mined cobalt in their supply chain reacted in a very mixed way.

Apple said it was currently evaluating its supply chain, saying: "Underage labour is never tolerated in our supply chain and we are proud to have led the industry in pioneering new safeguards.

"As we gain a better understanding of the challenges associated with cobalt we believe our work in the African Great Lakes region and Indonesia will serve as important guides for creating lasting solutions."

Most of the rest of the companies named either also said they are investigating the matter, or completely denied sourcing cobalt from DRC.

However, Samsung gave a more nuanced answer, stating: "[It is] impossible for us to determine whether the cobalt supplied to Samsung SDI comes from DRC Katanga's mines.

"The corporate policy of Samsung SDI prohibits the use of minerals originated from conflict-affected areas such as the DRC. Thus, the company conducts yearly investigations on our suppliers about the use of concerned minerals and examines the refiners of 3TG, banned under US SEC's conflict minerals rules."

It added: "The company investigated the country of origin of cobalt which is not on the current list of conflict minerals. However, in reality, it is very hard to trace the source of the mineral due to suppliers' nondisclosure of information and the complexity of the supply chains."

The detailed replies of all the companies named by Amnesty can be found in the appendix of the report, which can be downloaded in full here.

All images copyright Amensty International and Afrewatch

Jane McCallion
Managing Editor

Jane McCallion is ITPro's Managing Editor, specializing in data centers and enterprise IT infrastructure. Before becoming Managing Editor, she held the role of Deputy Editor and, prior to that, Features Editor, managing a pool of freelance and internal writers, while continuing to specialize in enterprise IT infrastructure, and business strategy.

Prior to joining ITPro, Jane was a freelance business journalist writing as both Jane McCallion and Jane Bordenave for titles such as European CEO, World Finance, and Business Excellence Magazine.