The Human Cost of Your Smartphone

Children mine cobalt — a key element for making batteries — in terrible conditions

Credit: Sebastian Meyer/Getty Images

TThere is no trace of toxic dust on the sleek, shiny iPhones lined up in the Apple Store — that would be terrible for marketing campaigns. And there is nothing mentioned about the 40,000 children in the southern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo who are forced to mine cobalt with their bare hands to create mobile phone batteries.

But there is toxic dust in those mines, and those children are almost always given nothing to protect themselves from it. Inhaling cobalt dust can cause fatal lung diseases, chronic rashes, vomiting, and convulsions. If the children want to keep these jobs they need to survive, they have no other choice but to work in these horrendous conditions.

At the beginning of 2019, there were more than 5.1 billion unique mobile phone users in the world. But very little is disclosed about how mobile phones are made, particularly the suffering that takes place at the beginning of the supply chain. Starting advertisements with clips of young children coughing and spluttering wouldn’t be very glamorous. Instead, electronics companies do everything they can to cover up all the links between their supply chains and the horrific human rights abuses.

What is cobalt, what is it used for, and where does it come from?

There are more than 40 different chemical elements in a mobile phone. Many of these elements have shady sourcing practices. The human rights issues surrounding cobalt especially are so dubious that the metal is often referred to as “the blood diamond of batteries.”

Cobalt is primarily produced by reducing the byproducts of copper and nickel mining. It’s expensive, and manufacturers have spent a long time searching for an alternative, but for the foreseeable future, it remains an essential component in all lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.

The copper belt found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and its neighboring country Zambia yields most of the world’s cobalt production, and it is where most companies source the chemical. This is also where the worst human rights violations occur because many of the mines are controlled by armed groups.

The DRC alone produces at least 50% of the world’s cobalt. Around 20% of the DRC’s cobalt is extracted by hand in a process called “artisanal mining.” The remainder is produced by large industrial mines that are typically owned by foreign companies — many of which are Chinese. China also owns most of the companies that buy products from the children who work at these mines. The hours are long, the conditions are bad, and the wages are very low.

Our renewable technology is powered by child labor

A 2016 investigation by Amnesty International revealed that several major electronics brands were not even attempting to carry out the most basic inspections to make sure child labor wasn’t used to mine the cobalt for phones. These brands included Apple (which has a net worth of more than $1 trillion), Samsung (also with a net worth of more than $1 trillion), and Sony (with a net worth of about $74 billion).

The job of sourcing cobalt is often designated for children as young as seven years old, who spend up to 12 hours every day in mines. With every breath these children take, they inhale potentially deadly mineral dust whose lethal consequences may not happen until years later. And with each rock they dig, they risk causing a fatal tunnel collapse that could kill them instantly.

In return, they are often paid the equivalent of $1-$2 (U.S.) per day.

Amnesty’s report, This Is What We Die For, documents these hazardous conditions. More than three years after these problems were exposed, the human rights abuses remain widespread.

Are tech companies at fault?

All major electronics brands publicly state they will not tolerate human rights abuses in their supply chains. But it’s easy to say this; verifying it is another matter. The reality is that supply chains are so complicated that very few companies are able to verify the information they receive from their suppliers — and some companies aren’t even trying.

Perhaps more shockingly, even the companies that do carry out investigations have not revealed to the public any risks and abuses they’ve found. A 2017 Amnesty International report revealed how the richest, most powerful industry giants are still failing to tackle child labor allegations in cobalt battery supply chains.

Should companies just stop buying cobalt from the DRC?

At a glance, the solution seems simple: Just stop buying from the DRC. But there are many issues with boycotting cobalt sourcing from the entire country.

In addition to cutting out the world’s largest cobalt producer, it would be likely to endanger citizens’ lives even further. The entire reason they are doing this work is to escape poverty. As hopeless as the job might be, so few alternatives for work exist that cobalt mining is the only means of survival for many people there.

Many of the mines are controlled by armed groups, but a large portion of them are not. As a result, a complete boycott of all minerals from the DRC — even in places where there is no conflict — would be detrimental to the people who work there and would likely cause further damage.

When it comes to mines that are controlled by armed groups, the issue is that virtually none of them are entirely dependent on mining revenue for their existence; it is just one of many methods they use to funnel money into their pursuits. So if these cobalt mines were to disappear, the armed groups would still function, but the people who rely on the mines for their income would lose what is likely their only means of survival.

Tracing the supply chain is not as simple as it may seem. In most of the DRC, state capacity is extremely low, and there is virtually no road infrastructure. Setting up the systems required to regularly assess the thousands of mining sites that are spread all across the DRC would be a severe challenge.

As a result, it is extremely difficult for companies to prove exactly where the minerals were sourced, which means that carrying out basic checks for human rights violations becomes even more difficult. Demanding that companies prove where their cobalt was mined would merely incentivize buyers to pull out of the region and source their minerals from elsewhere.

When an estimated 8 to 10 million people in the country are wholly dependent on artisanal mining for their livelihood, forcing companies to pull out from the DRC could lead to mass devastation and result in causing many more complicated problems than it solves.

So what are the alternatives?

Apple is leading the way in responsible sourcing. It became the first company to publish a list of its suppliers in 2017. For the last few years, it has focused on tackling child labor in the supply chain of Huayou Cobalt, China’s largest cobalt producer. And in March 2017, the company decided to further investigate the working conditions in the mines of the DRC, temporarily putting a hold on purchases of artisanal cobalt from the country.

However, putting even a temporary hold on cobalt purchases has consequences for miners in the DRC. In August, the Swiss mining giant Glencore suspended cobalt production for at least two years in the southern part of the DRC as a result of the closure of the Mutanga mine — the producer of almost 20% of the world’s cobalt. The company asserted the mine was no longer economically viable. This resulted in more than 3,000 jobs lost. Around the same time, Huayou Cobalt pulled out of a deal to invest $66.3 million in a cobalt mine in the DRC following a slump in the price of cobalt.

It’s clear that boycotting minerals from the DRC will simply cut off the income of workers who need it most. What we really need are companies to directly engage with initiatives in countries like the DRC to encourage more responsible mining practices.

One such company is Fairphone — a phone manufacturer whose unique selling point is “caring for the people and the planet” by improving the conditions of the workers lower down in their supply chain. Fairphone is partnering with a number of initiatives in an attempt to help formalize the sector and increase the transparency of the supply chains for the minerals used in mobile phones. This requires visiting suppliers in the DRC, building relationships on the ground, and taking steps to cut out the middlemen and buy directly from factories.

But the company currently has only a very small market share, and we need to put more pressure on the industry giants to follow suit if we can hope to make the slightest difference.

Increased demand for renewable energy is likely to mean an increased demand for cobalt

It is vital that our increasing drive for renewable energy is not powered by the misery of workers being forced to work in horrific conditions. But as renewable technologies that require lithium-ion batteries become more popular, the drive for cobalt is likely to increase even further. According to one prediction, cobalt demand will exceed 120,000 tonnes per year by 2020 — an increase of approximately 30% from 2016.

In 2018, Elon Musk tweeted that “we use less than 3% cobalt in our batteries & will use none in next gen,” but there is no guarantee that other battery manufacturers are on the same timeline.

And if we do stop using cobalt, what happens to people living in the DRC who rely on cobalt mining for their livelihood?

Tech journalist. Contributing Editor at PandoDaily.

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