Cobalt child labour congo iphone Raj Aseervatham

Smartphones, child labour and cobalt in the Congo

Many years ago, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Titanic drowned (apologies for the spoiler), I laughed out loud. Much to the collective anger of misty-eyed and openly sobbing cinema-goers of one particular gender; which I shall not name. I survived only because the cinema was too dark for me to be clearly identified.

A long time later, I grudgingly acknowledged Leo for shining a light on conflict diamonds in his goofily Hollywoody turn in Blood Diamond. As Leo helped point out, a diamond may be a girl’s best friend. But if it’s been out buying AK-47s to put into child soldiers’ hands before it snuggles up to a girl’s earlobe, ring finger or bosom…well.  A girl is entitled to revoke said BFF status.

Way back in 2003, the Kimberley Process for certifying diamonds “conflict-free” was put into place. It’s a simple chain-of-custody process (in other words you generally know where your diamond has been). It’s not perfect,  but it does make a sizeable dent in the conflict diamond trade. All you have to do, at the jewellery shop, is ask for the diamond’s Kimberley Certificate. If one can’t be produced, you – the empowered consumer – can turn your nose up at it.

For the past couple of years, I have been puzzling over another trade; the rare metal cobalt. It’s not as sexy as diamonds. Cobalt is used in rechargeable batteries in small but essential amounts. For all you battery nerds, there are three types of rechargeable batteries that use cobalt. In increasing amounts of cobalt, they are are Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cd), Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) and Lithium ion (Li-ion). The Lithium-ion battery uses about 60% cobalt in its cathode active material, according to the Cobalt Development Institute.

Most of us cosy up to cobalt in some way. The universal accessory, your smartphone, almost certainly has some cobalt. What’s the problem with cobalt? While Amnesty couldn’t get Leo to front its 8-minute documentary in early 2016, it’s still worth watching to find out Alternatively, read the report

As the documentary points out, over 55% of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC). The Law of Averages (which is admittedly not entirely accurate here) suggests either you or your best friend has a smartphone containing cobalt mined in a country where the problem is endemic.

The majority of cobalt in our Smartphones and rechargeable-battery accessories comes from the DRC.

When chasing modest amounts of lucrative cobalt, the quickest and cheapest way is to dig a little hole in the ground and send a small-ish person down there. Give him or her a pickaxe, torch and bag to gather up some blueish-greenish stuff. So if you are an entrepreneur thinking of a positive-cashflow artisanal mining operation, I’ve just outlined your low-cost labour force and equipment. You’re welcome. I take payment in unmarked bills.

Unsurprisingly, children tend to be small-ish. That’s not to say all artisanal miners are children; that would be incorrect, and overstating the issue. The division of labour is not strict. But you do find a lot of children in holes, and a lot of women washing the cobalt ore to get the dirt off it. In addition to the questionable use of underage people, there are a few other issues that aren’t kosher:

  • The ground tends to collapse on people. It’s not unusual in the DRC to see a group of people retrieving a small, broken, lifeless body from these holes.
  • Not all of the people who go down the holes have a choice about wriggling down there.
  • If a child is down a hole, it’s a fair bet he or she is not going to school; a cycle of poverty is enhanced.
  • Safety equipment? What are you talking about?
  • There are sometimes dodgy-looking armed men affiliated with the collection and transport of the ore.

You’ll probably agree that there are some potential violations of human rights in that set of observations.

In the DRC, the regulated mining companies don’t like this cottage industry of artisanal miners. It’s not that they worry about the competition. A child’s hands are considerably smaller than a Caterpillar excavator and therefore not that competitive. Sometimes they do worry that the fruits of artisanal activity make it into their production, but this can be audited and proven or disproven; and it often is. Often they do worry that their efforts to keep separation between their work and artisanal mining work, which may require security, could result in violations of artisanal miners’ rights. Again, that can be scrutinised and reported on, and it often is.

What is also problematic is that artisanal miners may work on mining land and sometimes in their operations,. So the presence of big mining companies can inadvertently encourage a side industry that infringes on the rights of small-ish people. It’s easy to see why this would be so. Mining companies pick the best land with the most cobalt (that’s one useful attribute of a horde of geologists). They make big holes in the ground to access the cobalt. They make roads for easy access to the big holes in the ground. What’s not to like? If I was an artisanal miner I’d be hiking in there every day with my packed lunch.

Artisanal mining is a legitimate activity. It can be undertaken legally and in a constructive way if a country’s laws and implementation set aside legitimate artisanal mining concessions and exclude child and forced labour. Artisanal mining has been around for centuries, and people have the right to earn a living. But today artisanal mining lies on the fringe of, our outside, the law. Yet artisanal miners are not bad guys. The problem is the architecture of the supply chain, which does not discourage bad things from happening. The problem is the buyers, listed here (with apologies for stereotyping) to illustrate the chain.

  • The dodgy men with mirrored aviator sunglasses in the mining provinces who encourage the industry, irrespective of labour practices.
  • The guys with the John Deere caps in towns with small cobalt-processing facilities.
  • The linen-shirted businessmen in the cities who buy from the processors.
  • The suited men in other countries (predominantly China) who buy from the businessmen.
  • The manufacturing companies in China, the US, Korea and other countries who turn the cobalt into engineered components.
  • The sophisticated customer-facing companies like Apple, Samsung, LG, Panasonic and Tesla who buy these components.

And you, who goes and buys their stuff.

One of the security operations I recently assessed for human rights controls in the cobalt world is run by a former drug enforcement agency operative. He remarked that the cobalt supply chain was starting to look a bit like the cocaine supply chain, complete with moustachio’d heavies, gunfoolery and cops on kickbacks. I snorted at the comparison. But he was serious.

The characteristics of illegal supplies of cobalt have been likened to the drug trade.

I have an iPhone so I can txt my daughter when she is standing nxt 2 me. I asked at the gleaming Apple store if they could produce a certificate confirming that my phone does not have cobalt derived from the deprivation of human rights. The technologically-astute-but-smug salesperson looked at me like I’d just materialised from another dimension. So I jumped on Apple’s website and, in the space they reserve for customer-suggested enhancements, I eschewed “better corrective text function” for “child-labour free certification”. They haven’t replied yet.

Certification for cobalt, like the Kimberley Process for conflict-free diamonds, can be done. Technically, checking your supply chain is not rocket science; I liken it to following breadcrumbs. But, like most things, it does require resources and effort. Customer outrage and demand would quickly translate to certification by Apple, Samsung, LG, Tesla and others, pushed down the supply chain. Broadscale corporate pressure would promote DRC policy and regulatory changes because the revenue stream for the country is too big to ignore.

Of course I’ve simplified the size of the task, but not the inherent complexity. The mantra becomes if you don’t got a certificate, I ain’t buying. And, in contrast to the Kimberley Process, it’s easier because 55% of the potential problem can be solved by focusing on just one country; the DRC. It’s not quite the Pareto Principle but it’s not bad.

Certifying the supply chain is not only feasible, it can result in positive policy and regulatory changes

An enlightened person encouraged me to buy a Fairphone instead of Apple or Samsung. Fairphone certifies trace elements of conflict minerals under the US Dodd-Frank Act in their phones, much of which comes from the DRC. But when I asked, they hadn’t got around to doing much about cobalt. Because cobalt is not listed as a conflict mineral. Boo.

The Economist predicts that by late 2017 the growth of electric vehicles and home solar-battery systems will result in unprecedented global demand in cobalt. That means buyers will be looking with increasing vigour for sources of cobalt. Unless the supply chain landscape changes, that means more children in holes. Hooray for climate change, sorry about the kids.

I might bring that snippet of information to eco-warrior Leo’s attention (~bags movie rights and a cameo~).

So I encourage you, dear Apple user, Samsung user, aspiring Tesla-owner: go irritate your supplier with a quirky request for a certificate for the cobalt in your battery. Of course they won’t have one, but if enough people irritate their suppliers, action may be taken sooner.

I think it’s called the Power of the Customer.



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