The Human Cost of Your Smartphone
Children mine cobalt — a key element for making batteries — in terrible conditions
There 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…