Walk into any high-end phone shop and you’ll find all the hallmarks of the luxury tech market: slick surfaces, cool lines, spotless screens.
It’s a far cry from the toxic dust that children inhale as they mine the cobalt that powers the batteries we rely on for our phones and other portable electronic devices.
These child miners, some as young as seven, live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), central Africa. Given that more than half the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC, that one fifth of it is extracted by artisanal (or informal) miners, and that around 40,000 children work in southern DRC where the cobalt is mined, there’s a chance that our phones contain child labour.
Yet phone manufacturers – global brands including Apple and Samsung – won’t tell us if their cobalt supply chains are tainted by child labour. They have a responsibility to do so –to check for and address child labour in their supply chains, setting an example for the rest of the industry to follow.
We all agree that our phones are indispensable, but we can’t dispense with the rights of the men, women and children whose labour powers our phones.
There is lots of dust, it is very easy to catch colds, and we hurt all over.Dany, a 15-year-old cobalt miner in DRC
I could only eat when I had enough money.Mathy, who was forced into mining at age 9, after her father lost his job
Did children mine the materials in your phone?
UNICEF estimates that about 40,000 boys and girls work as artisanal miners in southern DRC, many of who extract cobalt. Some artisanal miners use chisels and other hand tools to dig holes tens of metres deep, often without any permit. Others handpick rocks rich in cobalt ore at the surface. Although we met one boy who had gone down into the pits, most child miners work above ground, sifting through leftover rubble and rock, searching for bits of ore which they then sort and wash.
Whether going into the holes – which are unfortified and prone to collapse – or sorting and sifting through discarded rock, the dangers are many.
I worked in the mines because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for food and clothes for me. Papa is unemployed, and mama sells charcoal.Arthur 13, who was a miner from age 9 to 11
Many children we spoke to told us that they were frequently ill. Inhaling cobalt dust can cause hard metal lung disease – a potentially fatal condition. Skin contact with cobalt can cause dermatitis – a chronic rash. Yet the children and other miners have neither masks nor gloves to protect them.
The children told us that they endured long hours – up to 12 hours a day – working at the mines hauling back-breaking loads of between 20 and 40kg for US$1-2 per day. Many had nothing to eat all day. Fourteen-year-old Paul, who began mining aged 12 and worked underground, told us he would often: “spend 24 hours down in the tunnels. I arrived in the morning and would leave the following morning.”
Vulnerable and exploited
Many of the children work so they can go to school. Although by law primary education is free and compulsory in DRC, lack of state funding means that schools charge parents to cover costs like teachers’ salaries and books. These costs range from US$10-30 per month – more than most can afford.
Of the children we spoke to, those who went to school worked 10-12 hours during the weekend and school holidays, as well as before and after school.
Several children were beaten or saw children being beaten by security guards when they trespassed on land belonging to other mining companies. Children who collected, sorted, washed, crushed and transported minerals were paid per sack by traders. With no way of knowing the weight of the sacks or the grade of cobalt they had collected, the children had to accept whatever the traders paid them, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.
The participation of children in mining is widely recognized as one of the worst forms of child labour. Governments have a legal duty not only to prevent this, but eliminate it altogether. And product manufacturers have a responsibility to check for child labour in their supply chains, address it where they find it, and publicly disclose the steps they have taken.
I sold to négociants who have scales. But some of the others did not … and just estimated the weight: they paid us less than the adults.Loïc, aged 13
Official response so far
Before releasing our report, This is what we die for, we received a number of responses from the companies we named. Some companies denied the link. Since publication, China-based Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cobalt products, has advised that it is looking into our findings and developing a due diligence system. Some of the other global brands named in our report also told us that they are looking into our findings. Samsung SDI publicly acknowledged our report and stated that they are currently looking into our allegations and will publish a report on their website by the end of the year. Apple published a list of all its cobalt smelters, in line with international standards. Sony followed suit, publishing for the first time details of its cobalt supply chain. In August 2017, the DRC government admitted for the first time that children are working in cobalt mines. They pledged to end child mining by 2025 in their new strategy on child labour.