Amnesty International has dropped a bombshell report accusing Microsoft, Apple, Vodafone, and numerous other companies of profiting from child labour. Some of the cobalt used in batteries, the rights group alleges, is mined by “children as young as seven” in hazardous conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The companies’ response, so far: It’s too hard and expensive to check whether this is the case.
Amnesty’s report focuses around Huayou Cobalt and its subsidiary Congo Dongfang Mining International (CDM), which it describes as “one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cobalt products.”
Amnesty researchers traced cobalt mined in “artisanal” mines to markets where it was purchased by traders, who then sell it on to CDM (and other companies). They then traced the supply chain that CDM supplies — which allegedly includes Apple, Samsung, Sony, Dell, HP, Microsoft, VW, LG, and others. (Some companies have denied a connection.)
Amnesty researchers found health issues, dangerous working conditions, government officials demanding illegal payments from workers, and child labourers at these “artisanal” mines that CDM gets cobalt from.
Here’s the supply chain that Amnesty mapped out:
Microsoft told Amnesty a company in this supply chain linked to it is a supplier for “a very limited number of batteries for a product development project.” Batteries produced by the company, Tianjin Lishen, are “not used in any product currently sold by Microsoft,” it says.
Microsoft also provided Amnesty with a statement about its policy for sourcing materials. It said:
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.
Business Insider has reached out to Microsoft for further comment.
This failure to fully investigate supply chains isn’t unique to Microsoft. Amnesty, introducing its report, says that it “contacted 16 multinational consumer brands listed as direct or indirect customers of the three battery component manufacturers. None said they had been in touch with Huayou Cobalt [a key cobalt supplier] or traced where the cobalt in their products had come from prior to Amnesty International’s contact.”
Samsung told the rights group: “It is very hard to trace the source of the mineral due to the suppliers’ nondisclosure of information and the complexity of the supply chains. Therefore it is impossible for us to determine whether the cobalt supplied to Samsung SDI comes from DRC Katanga’s mines.”
Daimler said that while it doesn’t “engage in any traceable mineral or commodity purchasing activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” it conceded that “due to the high complexity of automotive supply chains, we are, however, not able to definitely confirm whether or not cobalt in our products originates from this region or from the mentioned companies at any stage within our supply chains.”
Amnesty doesn’t think much of these responses. Mark Dummett, a researcher at the rights group, called them “staggering.”
He said, per The Guardian: These are some of the biggest companies in the world, with combined profits of $125 billion and there is no excuse that companies aren’t investing some of that profit into ensuring that they can trace where the minerals they are using are coming from … Anyone with a smartphone would be appalled to think that children as young as seven carrying out back-breaking work for 12 hours a day could be involved at some point in the making of it.”