Apple’s new policy in its supply chain for cobalt used in iPhone and iPad batteries aims at protecting mine workers and banning child labor.
Congo supplies 60% of the world's cobalt. The mineral is used in lithium-ion batteries that power electronic devices from smartphone to computers.
Major technology company supply chains source their cobalt from artisanal cobalt mines. Several investigations have reported the alarming findings of dangerous working conditions, ranging from a lack of protective equipment to hand-dug tunnels at constant risk of collapsing and killing mine workers.
Adding to the already alarming highly dangerous working conditions, recent investigations have reported consistent and continuous child labor, including workers as young as 11-year-olds working 12-hour shifts and carrying heavy sacks, often in heavy rain, enduring beatings from supervisors. Younger children have also been found working in the mines.
A recent Sky News report shows heartbreaking images of children — both boys and girls — as young as four working in cobalt mines under harsh weather conditions and being threatened with beatings if they don't do well.
Children as young as four are working mining cobalt
Electronics and car firms contacted by Sky News reported that it's difficult to trace whether their cobalt comes from the mines in the film below.
Desperate need for regulation
Companies say it is better to improve working conditions rather than terminating contracts since those communities depend on the income. However, there is not much that can be done until regulation is in place.
There is an urge to require electronics and cars manufacturers to trace their cobalt supply chains to stop the inhumane labor conditions and child labor. The children forced to work in the mines often spend several days with no or little food, according to the Sky News report.
There are thousands of unregulated mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, however, one of the richest in minerals. The country has a long history of colonial exploitation and slavery. Most of the cobalt is extracted by hand, or with rudimentary tools in harsh weather conditions, risking their health and lives.
Exposure to cobalt as well as inhaling its fumes can cause long-term health problems, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Despite this, neither adults nor children workers wear protective masks or gloves.
Small mining operations sell the cobalt to Chinese traders, who in turn sell it to exporter Congo Dongfang International, a subsidiary of Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company, which is Congo's biggest cobalt buyer and supplies most of the world's largest battery makers that end up in smartphones and laptops.
Often, Chinese traders don't ask questions about workers involved in the mining, where the cobalt comes from, or if child labor has been involved in the process. Instead, the main focus is often on price.
Leading the charge toward change
In this light, Apple has been committed to address transparency in demanding its supply chain to hold to standards. “If our suppliers are unable or unwilling to meet our standards then we suspend or terminate business with them,” the Cupertino-based company told Sky News. Last year, Apple removed 22 smelters from its supply chain.
“We have been working with Huayou on a program that will verify individual artisanal mines, according to our standards, and these mines will re-enter our supply chain when we are confident that the appropriate protections are in place,” Apple said in a statement.
Apple's decision to discontinue its cobalt supplier in Congo when the company discovers violations to its supply chain standards shows in Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Progress Report 2016 (PDF) that opens by saying “There's a right way to make products. It starts with the rights of the people who make them.” The annual report is aimed at detailing progress in Apple's supply chain, and the company's actions taken to ensure workers are fairly treated.
Apple has already stopped supply from artisanal mines. It now treats cobalt in the same way as conflict minerals such as gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten.
If other electronics manufacturers would join Apple in stopping buying cobalt from artisanal mines, perhaps there could be an improvement in labor conditions and an end to child labor. Let us know what your company is doing in this area in the comments section below.