Cobalt, an element found in lithium-ion batteries used by some of the world's largest electronics companies and auto manufacturers, can be traced back to mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that employ children as young as 7 years of age, according to Amnesty International.
Amnesty released a report on Tuesday, criticizing companies of not performing "human rights due diligence" on source material for their products. According to the report, cobalt in lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones, notebooks, and tablets, originates from the DRC where children work up 12 hours a day, for as little as $1.
“Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made," said Mark Dummett, a human rights researcher at Amnesty International, in a statement. “The glamorous shop displays and marketing of state of the art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow manmade tunnels risking permanent lung damage."
The human rights group, in a joint venture with African Resource Watch (Afrewatch) interviewed 87 people, 17 of which were children working in five artisanal cobalt mine sites. Some of the children interviewed described harsh working conditions such as lacking proper gear and carrying heavy loads, to earn between $1 and $2 per day.
Amnesty said they documented how traders bought cobalt from mining areas where child mining is widespread, and sold it to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt). The mineral is locally processed and then sold to battery manufacturing companies in China and South Korea. The human rights organization used investor documents to identify 16 multinational brands listed as buyers of lithium-ion batteries, from the manufacturing companies.
According to the report, only one of the 16 companies confirmed to be customers of the Chinese companies, but said that they could not identify the true source of the material. Five of the companies denied any connection to the Chinese supplier, while two of the companies denied sourcing cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Six companies, including Apple, Samsung, Sony, and Microsoft, said that they are investigating the claim.
"If a violation of child labor is found, contracts with suppliers who use child labor will be immediately terminated," Samsung said in a statement, according to CNET. The statement added that the company prohibits the use of material mined from conflict areas such as the DRC, but due to nondisclosure agreements signed with the supplies, it was impossible to determine whether the cobalt used originated from DRC.
Amnesty highly criticized the nondisclosure agreement saying that companies are unscrutinized, which allows for human rights violations to continue.
"Without laws that require companies to check and publicly disclose information about where they source minerals and their suppliers, companies can continue to benefit from human rights abuses," Dummett said. "Governments must put an end to this lack of transparency, which allows companies to profit from misery."
More than half of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 20 percent of which is mined from artisanal areas in the southern part of the country, according to the Guardian. A 2012 UNICEF report estimated that about 40,000 children work in these mines where the conditions are said to be dangerous. Amnesty reported that 80 miners have died between September 2014 and December 2015.
“No company can validly claim that they are unaware of the human rights and child labour abuses linked with mineral extraction in the region,” Dummett said. “Anyone with a smartphone would be appalled to think that children as young as seven carrying out back-breaking work for 12 hours a day could be involved at some point in the making of it.”