We amuse ourselves with last-generation smartphones, download apps, and make smiling selfies. Phones mean more than mere technological gadgets to us, they are a way of being. Yet, there are people who spend their whole life in the shadow of the huge technology business.
Needless to say that they are the poorest, the least, people nobody talks about. Seven-year-old children who work in dangerous conditions in mines where they extract cobalt, a material used to produce lithium batteries for smartphones, electric cars, and computers.
Cobalt mines are in the Democratic Republic of Congo where people work up to 15 hours a day for a dollar or two, and where kids and adults are forced to endure an inhuman workload. This complaint comes from Amnesty International, which points its finger at some of the best known brands of electronics and automotive industries, guilty of failing to make adequate controls to ensure that cobalt extracted by the new slaves does not end up in their products.
The ‘artisanal’ miners work in different ways: some of them have to go down deep to reach the mine shafts (this work is generally done by adult men), whereas others – mostly children – collect waste material derived from mining and extract cobalt, washing and sifting the stolen rocks. The former are often ‘paid’ employees of the big mining companies, whereas the latter work for themselves and later sell their products to intermediaries.
In the report produced in collaboration with Afrewatch, Amnesty focuses on human rights abuses in the African country which provides 50% of the global cobalt extraction. The nefarious circle that makes these children’s pain end up in our bags or pockets begins in Congo, from the subsidiary under the full control of a giant Chinese extraction industry. Next, the ore is sold to three manufacturers of battery components in China and South Korea, which, in their turn, arrange for the companies that serve colossal car and electronics industries.
The report contains the names of the world’s biggest mobile phone manufacturers. Amnesty writes that it took contact with 16 corporations, which were among the clients of the battery manufacturers and none of them was able to provide detailed information for an independent control of the origin of the cobalt used in their products.
Sony told Ansa that since 2005 it has adopted a code that asks its suppliers to comply with ethical working conditions. It also stressed that it led a specific investigation on the chain of cobalt supply and that it did not find minerals coming from Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whereas Apple explained BBC that it is “considering” dozens of different materials, including cobalt, to identify potential environmental and workplace-related risks. Samsung said that contracts with suppliers who exploit child labor are “immediately terminated”.
In 2002, the Congolese government issued a code for mining activity, stating that artisanal miners could work only in limited zones of artisanal exploitation or in artisanal mining areas where large mining industry was not sustainable. These areas, however, are few and often artisanal miners are forced to work in unapproved areas and in poor condition, to earn some money for their families. The mining activity code, however, gives no rules on how to work in the mines or on what precautions should be used (clothing, behavior …). As a result, many miner inhale and touch these materials while working. Recent studies show that cobalt provokes irritation when skin comes into contact with it and that it causes serious diseases of the respiratory tract if inhaled.
No official statistics concerning death cases among miners are available so far, but Radio Okapi, a radio station run by the United Nations, reports 80 dead in the period between September 2014 and December 2015 alone. According to UNICEF data cited by Amnesty and Afrewatch, at least 40 thousand children are forced to work in the cobalt mines of cobalt of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Often exploitation is accompanied by physical abuse, not to mention exposure to dust and hazardous gases. It is an insult to human dignity, and the great (economic and political) powers pretend they are unaware of it…