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Amnesty Report: Child Labor Used To Gather Minerals For Gadget Batteries

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In a world where companies depend on supply chains that extend deep into other continents, child labor can be out of sight. Amnesty International, for one, says it shouldn't be. It's accusing Apple and other electronics makers of failing to check the children aren't involved in mining a key mineral used in lithium-ion batteries, the batteries in your smartphone and also in hybrid cars. That mineral is cobalt. And as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, much of it comes from what economists call artisanal mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Artisanal mines, sounds almost boutique, handmade, the artisanal mines of Katanga in southern Congo are handmade.

MARK DUMMETT: Literally hand dug.

WARNER: Mark Dummett of Amnesty International has seen this. The ground is so mineral rich.

DUMMETT: We saw how the residents of this area had dug tunnels even through the floor of their homes to get to the cobalt.

WARNER: Cobalt sells cheap in a place where it's so plentiful, so cheap, he says, that whole families pull their efforts to search for the dark gray stones, even children, he says, as young as seven.

DUMMETT: They're working with their families to collect enough rocks to survive. They crush them. They sort them. They wash them. They transport them.

WARNER: And they sell them to a Congolese middleman, basically a guy with a burlap sack.

DUMMETT: Yeah, it's a guy with a bag and a wad of cash who's bigger than the children.

WARNER: He sells the rocks to independent Chinese-owned buying companies. And so it moves up, up, up the supply chain onto the large mining companies which export them to smelting operations in China.

DUMMETT: Which then sell on to the factories which actually make the batteries, so we identified that there are at least seven steps in the supply chain from the child collecting rocks and the companies which are making the smartphones that we buy and use.

WARNER: Apple did not respond to requests for comment. The Chinese company, Huayou Cobalt, that processes the ore told Amnesty that none of their suppliers employ children.

DUMMETT: But that misses the point. It's not that they're being employed by companies, local companies or foreign companies to do this mining.

WARNER: In the informal economy at this far end of the chain, almost no one is technically employed. Dummett says that companies that use Congolese cobalt should take steps to ensure that Congolese children are in school, not digging holes or sorting rocks. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.