The kid in the middle of this photo is 8 years old, his name is Dorsen, and the man next to him is threatening to hit him if he screws up again. They are both standing in the pouring rain, in ankle-deep mud, in a cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a lot of the cobalt used in Apple’s iPhone batteries comes from.
Dorsen was discovered by a Sky News team who made an excellent documentary about the use of child labour in smartphone battery cobalt mines earlier this year.
Apple says it is working to end child labour in cobalt mines, and it has partnered with a number of NGOs to focus on the DRC particularly.
“There’s absolutely no excuse for anyone under legal working age to be in our supply chain,” the company says in its most recent Supplier Responsibility Progress Report.
It’s not just Apple’s problem, of course. Any phone company that needs lithium-ion batteries is ultimately sourcing much of its cobalt from the DRC. Because Apple makes the single most popular phone model on the planet, it gets the brunt of the criticism.
Samsung has been less specific about what it is doing. When it was criticised in 2016 by Amnesty for sourcing its cobalt from the DRC, it promised to investigate.
“We will share the report of upstream supply chain of cobalt on our website by the end of 2016,” the company said in March 2016. “Furthermore, we will not only engage in joint initiative for sustainable supply chain of cobalt, but also take measures to secure transparency and human rights with our suppliers through continuous monitoring of the supply chain.”
Samsung has not yet published that report on its social responsibility site, however.
In the meantime, Apple has taken some steps to fix the mining business. “We know there are real challenges with artisanal mining of cobalt, but walking away from it indefinitely would be harmful to communities who rely on this mining for their income,” Apple says. Plus, Apple needs the cobalt. So the company is “working to end child labour and human rights abuses in mining communities.”
The conditions in which cobalt is mined are pitiful.
The mines are little more than holes in the ground, dug by hand. Tunnels can reach several dozen feet into the earth but there is no safety equipment or support structure to stop cave-ins. Miners work with hand tools to pull cobalt-laden rocks to the surface.
The sacks are moved around the mine by children. Dorsen wasn’t quick enough with his sack when Sky’s cameras were rolling.
Dorsen’s supervisor stops short of actually striking him.
Once Dorsen has filled the bag, the adult workers controlling him put it onto his head so he can carry it away.
There are about 40,000 children mining cobalt in the DRC, according to Amnesty.
It’s punishing work.
At the surface of the mine, children use their bare hands to sieve the mined rocks in muddy pools or streams.
They pick the stones with the purest cobalt content and sort them into sacks.
Dorsen isn’t the youngest person in his mine. Sky also found this girl, who is 4.
At the end of the day the kids are aching all over, one told Sky.
The runoff from the mines poisons the local water supply. This miner believes the huge tumour on his neck comes from impurities caused by the mine.
The cobalt is taken to open-air markets where Chinese buyers, like this guy, give the locals a price.
The cobalt is then traded through a chain of Chinese suppliers, according to the Washington Post, until it reaches Apple, Samsung, and all the other phone makers. That opaque chain is why no single phone company can be tied directly to any one Congolese cobalt mine.
It’s a similar situation in Indonesia, where children work in mud pits (below) to extract tin for smartphones, according to this BBC report, which found a 14-year-old in one mine. They are at constant risk of mudslides, and people frequently die in them.
In 2016, Apple became more active about policing its suppliers. Its initial efforts have been most focused on companies that Apple contract with directly.
“In 2016, we expanded our responsible sourcing efforts beyond conflict minerals to include cobalt. We’re proud to report that 100 per cent of our conflict minerals and cobalt smelter/refiner partners are now participating in independent third-party audits to ensure their own business practices are conducted responsibly,” the company says in its responsibility report.
“There’s absolutely no excuse for anyone under legal working age to be in our supply chain. In 2016, we assessed 705 facilities that employ nearly 1.2 million people and found one underage worker, a 15½-year-old who had been working in a manufacturing facility in China, where the legal working age is 16.
“We required the supplier to provide safe passage home for the underage worker, and to continue paying their wages while also providing an educational opportunity. Upon the underage worker becoming of legal age, the supplier will be required to provide them with an employment opportunity.”
Apple is paying attention to the indirect suppliers of raw materials in the chain below the Chinese commodity traders, although its proposals there are more vague:
“We are working with our cobalt suppliers and stakeholders on a programme that will verify individual artisanal mines, according to our standards, and these mines will be allowed into our supply chain when we are confident the appropriate protections are in place. We have also partnered with numerous NGOs to drive change, including Pact, who are working to provide essential health and safety training to artisanal mining communities, and build programmes to help children stay at school.
“And we made a grant to the Fund for Global Human Rights, an international organisation that provides financial and other support to grassroots organisations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are working to end child labour and human rights abuses in mining communities.”
More from Jim Edwards:
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