By Elise Mann, Research Assistant
Are you reading this article on your laptop, mobile phone or tablet? If so, you are using cobalt, a naturally occurring mineral central to the issues of forced labor and dangerous labor practices. Cobalt is the most expensive raw material used in the lithium-ion batteries powering your favorite electronic devices, and over half of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Due to a lack of strong or enforceable international standards, the responsibility of ensuring a sustainable and humane cobalt supply chain lies in the hands of Apple, Tesla, and all leading technology companies whose products rely on this essential mineral.
DRC’s history is often defined by exploitation of their vast mineral resources. In recent years, a common narrative for the country is that of “conflict minerals” – including gold, tantulum, tin and tungsten – and their revenue which fuels armed militia groups and the ongoing violence in the region. However, less attention is paid to DRC’s status as the primary source of cobalt for the global market.
Men, women, and children are involved in this informal sector. A significant amount of cobalt is extracted from underground tunnels and pit shafts by artisanal miners, who use their hands to dig for the mineral. They do not use protective gear, and long-term exposure to cobalt dust causes respiratory illnesses, as well as other serious health consequences. Fatal accidents are frequent – miners face the threat of tunnel collapses or suffocating from poor ventilation deep underground. The immense amount of cobalt in the DRC should be a source of economic prosperity for the Congolese, not an outlet for repeated human rights abuses.
Current protective measures at the local and international level are not sufficient. The 2002 DRC Mining Code outlines specific regulations for the artisanal mining sector. For example, only adults (at least age 18) are allowed to mine. However, the government body that oversees its enforcement does not have the capacity to enforce this legislation, and forced child labor for cobalt has been documented by the U.S. State Department. Further, the Code requires all artisanal mining to occur in authorized Zones d’Explotation Artisanale, or ZEAs. Unfortunately, the government has failed to create enough ZEAs, so miners end up acting illegally, digging in unauthorized areas and trespassing on private property. The desperation for cobalt outweighs any threats by the government for enforcement.
Many international standards exist to ensure companies do not violate their workers’ human rights. The UN Global Compact shares 10 universal principles to ensure protections for human rights, labor and the environment, but membership in the initiative is voluntary. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (OECD Guidelines) provide a framework for corporations to conduct responsible business practices in countries around the world. Under the OECD Guidelines, the DRC would be categorized as a “high-risk” area. The non-binding guidelines promote due diligence practices for all mineral supply chains, but have no enforcement capabilities . Lastly, when asked about their cobalt supply chain, many companies point to the 2010 U.S. Dodd-Frank financial reform bill which only requires due diligence be completed for conflict minerals, not for cobalt.
Neither local nor international standards are enough, so the responsibility for the lives and livelihoods of at least 100,000 Congolese men, women and children who extract this material under dangerous conditions lies in the hands of Apple, Samsung, Tesla, Amazon, Sony and other major technology corporations. As the demand for technology continues to grow, the tech companies that produce and sell these products must track their supply chains back to the original sources of extraction.
If Apple or Volkswagen was to demand their suppliers provide them details about exactly when, where and how their cobalt was mined, this would dramatically impact the sourcing practices. I reject the claim that this supply chain is too messy for the leading technology companies in the world to figure out. The web between all of the different individuals and companies at different tiers in the supply chain is complicated. However, the innovation that has led to the iPhone and electric cars can surely be captured to ensure a safer process of extracting the very mineral that makes those products possible. It is not a matter of ability to do so, but of willingness.
There is a rumor that Apple will start treating cobalt like a conflict mineral in 2017. If true, I support their efforts, but I’m skeptical. As a leader in the Information Technology industry, Apple should step into an immediate leadership role in tracking and auditing their cobalt supply. Our cultural dependence on products that require cobalt does not justify the horrible working conditions artisanal miners in DRC face just for two or three dollars a day. In the age of digital innovation, the dependence on exploitative practices for cobalt undermines the very potential of the technology to bring together people from around the world.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC
Photo Credit: Pixabay
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Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.
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