Phones, Electric Cars and Human Rights Abuses - 5 Things You Need to Know

The phone you’re using or the electric car you’re driving could be linked to child labour.

Lithium-ion batteries powering most electric vehicles and cell phones contain the mineral cobalt. According to our research, cobalt mined by children and adults in appalling conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is entering the supply chains of some of the world’s biggest brands.

Short of stopping the use of phones and electric cars, is there anything you can do?

How is my cell phone or electric car linked to human rights abuses?

More than half of the world’s cobalt found in the batteries of most electric vehicles and cell phones comes from the DRC, where around 20 percent is extracted by hand in what is known as artisanal mining.

Research by Amnesty International found Congolese cobalt miners in these artisanal mines working in dangerous, narrow underground tunnels and handling hazardous minerals without basic safety or protective equipment. Children as young as seven were seen working alongside adults for up to 12 hours a day, sorting minerals and carrying heavy loads in exchange for the equivalent of US$1-2. Government authorities responsible for ensuring health and safety standards and preventing child labour ignore these abuses or otherwise fail to enforce the law.

The traders and companies that purchase these ores typically do so without asking basic questions about where the materials came from or the conditions in which they were extracted, as required under international standards.

The result is that cobalt linked to the worst forms of child labour and other serious human rights abuses have been entering the global supply chains of battery manufacturers linked to some of the world’s largest automotive and electronics brands.

Why are human rights abuses still widespread more than two years since Amnesty International first exposed problems in the cobalt supply chain? 

  • The DRC government has made only limited progress in following through on its commitments to tackle child labour and other abuses. Many officials appear more interested in keeping problems hidden from view than in improving health and safety conditions or enforcing the law.
  • Companies still aren’t doing enough to verify supply chain information they receive from suppliers. And when abuses have been uncovered, they are not taking adequate corrective actions to address past harms.

 There is still a lack of complete and verifiable supply chain information and no system of third-party verification in place.

  • Suppliers: To date, no smelters or refiners are disclosing a complete picture of which mines, traders and transport routes are supplying them with cobalt. This is because no law currently requires them to do so, and too few brand-name manufacturers of electric vehicles or consumer electronics are looking closely enough at their suppliers.
  • Miners: Even though the price of cobalt has increased exponentially, miners are not receiving a better price. They lack the leverage to demand better pay and working conditions, and traders and processors see purchasing cheap hand-dug cobalt as a quick way to boost their profit margins.

Aren’t these problems a result of poverty in the DRC, and aren’t people benefitting economically from the growing demand for cobalt?

Despite rising prices, miners are not receiving fair remuneration in line with the high prices that traders and processors can fetch. All too often appalling conditions have actually worsened as demand for cobalt has grown.

It’s true that many of those who dig or pick cobalt ores by hand in the DRC do so because they have no alternative sources of income. Many children take part because there is no one else to take care of them. School fees are expensive and many children are not even getting one meal a day. Mining has both detrimental physical and mental effects on children, which is why it is considered to be one of the worst forms of child labour.

This is why Amnesty International is not only calling for children to be removed from mining areas. The DRC government must also take steps to address the economic, educational, psychological and physical health needs of children.

Artisanal mining should not be banned. It must be reformed and regulated so that adult miners are paid fairly for their labour and can work in safer conditions, which includes being provided with all necessary safety equipment and adequate technical support and training.

Given all these problems, wouldn’t it be better for companies to avoid purchasing cobalt and other metals from the DRC?

The solution is not for companies to stop purchasing DRC cobalt or cut out all artisanal cobalt in favour of industrial suppliers. The Congolese people who engage in this gruelling and hazardous work do so because they have few other options to escape poverty. Cutting out cobalt from the DRC simply could not happen, given how much of the world’s cobalt is found there; it would also make these people’s lives even more precarious

While industrial mining operations may not have the same risks of child labour, Amnesty International’s research has shown that they can also be associated with serious human rights abuses, such as forced evictions and pollution affecting people’s health and access to clean water.

Instead of focusing on how to secure “safer” sources of cobalt, companies should be using their leverage over suppliers to ensure that it is mined safely and responsibly—whether by hand or by machine. 

Is there anything I can do?

Change is possible. Since our report came out, the London Metal Exchange has already launched an investigation into whether cobalt mined by children is being traded in London.

As a consumer, you have an important role to play by demanding that brands be more accountable and transparent. You can push big brands to produce ethical batteries, where they can prove how human rights have been respected. Our report has assessed various brands according to how much action they have taken to improve their cobalt sourcing practices. You can contact them to demand that they do more. 

Companies need to carry out ongoing checks to identify where the cobalt they use comes from and whether there are risks associated with its extraction, transport, sale or processing. They need to demonstrate publicly that their investigations have been thorough enough and that they’re taking adequate steps to address any problems they find—including by providing remedy to those who have suffered harms in the past.

You can also demand your governments to legally require companies that mine, process or use cobalt to perform and disclose their due diligence practices. They should also ensure that all policies promoting the use of electric vehicles require their rechargeable batteries to be ethically mined, manufactured and recycled.