In the DRC, Mining Cobalt for Lithium Ion Batteries

As a component of lithium-ion batteries, cobalt has become one of the single most important contributors to modern industry. However, the conditions in which it is mined are often dangerous, cramped, and frequently use child labour.

Back in January, Amnesty International released a heartbreaking report (PDF) describing the brutal conditions many cobalt miners face, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

Not only are state officials aware of the mining activities taking place in unauthorized locations, but they also financially benefit from them. Officials from a range of different government and security agencies control access to unauthorized mining sites and demand illegal payments from artisanal miners. During their visits, researchers saw officials wearing uniforms and others who identified themselves as working for governmental agencies at three unauthorized mining sites. In Kasulo, they saw uniformed police and were approached by two men out of uniform, and one in uniform, who said that they were members of the mines police. These men told the researchers to leave the area as foreigners were not allowed to visit mines sites without official permission, and demanded that the researchers pay a fine. Artisanal miners at these and other sites complained that the mines police and other officials demand payments from them for each sack of ore or to work on the site.

A Ministry of Mines official confirmed to researchers that none of these agencies are authorized to collect payments (referred to in the mining areas as “taxes”) from artisanal miners. The evidence suggests that the state officials are extorting illegal payments from artisanal miners, while turning a blind eye to the unsafe conditions in which miners work that breach DRC’s own laws, including the prohibition on child labour in mines.

As with other, similar, reports of human rights abuses deep within the global supply chain, I assumed that this would rapidly be forgotten. After all, cobalt has been on the U.S. Department of Labor’s rather depressing “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” since 2009 (PDF), and very little has come of it.

However, Todd C. Frankel recently investigated cobalt mining for the Washington Post and it’s making headlines all over again:

The Post traced this cobalt pipeline and, for the first time, showed how cobalt mined in these harsh conditions ends up in popular consumer products. It moves from small-scale Congolese mines to a single Chinese company — Congo DongFang International Mining, part of one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt — that for years has supplied some of the world’s largest battery makers. They, in turn, have produced the batteries found inside products such as Apple’s iPhones — a finding that calls into question corporate assertions that they are capable of monitoring their supply chains for human rights abuses or child labor.

These raw materials are extremely hard to trace — I encourage you to read both reports. This is particularly true when there is effectively one large company controlling much of the global supply of cobalt, and there is financial incentive to make the cobalt as difficult to trace as possible.

There are lots of ways to address this, but something that may prove most effective is to treat cobalt as a conflict material. Under Dodd-Frank, any products from American companies that use tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold are required to be certified conflict-free. Amnesty International notes how powerful an adjustment to that legislation could be:

Yet it is clear that these companies are currently failing to operationalise the OECD’s five step due diligence process beyond whatever measures they have put in place for 3T and gold. One company explicitly admitted and others implied that this is because cobalt is not covered under US legislation, clearly underscoring the value of law in influencing corporate behaviour.

Unlike with Amnesty’s report, some major tech and automotive companies responded to the specific allegations within the Post’s story. Just one — Apple — has committed to conflict-free certification:

Starting in 2017, Apple will internally treat cobalt as a conflict mineral, requiring all cobalt refiners to agree to outside supply-chain audits and conduct risk assessments. The company also will soon, for the first time, include cobalt in an annual update of due-diligence efforts for its conflict-minerals supply chain. This goes beyond what current OECD guidelines call for. Apple also supports adding cobalt to the U.S. conflict-minerals law, which currently requires American firms to try to verify the source of tin, tungsten, titanium and gold used in their products.

As the American consumer electronics industry is one of the world’s largest, this policy change could have a significant positive impact on the worldwide cobalt industry.

But, while there are people working in tremendously awful labour conditions around the world in many industries, we should expect that every company practices due diligence and ensures that the raw materials used in its products were not unearthed by slaves, children, or people risking their lives. This should not need to be stated, nor should Apple’s commitment feel like something that differentiates their products from their competitors’. This is basic human decency: an expectation, more than anything.