Suppliers of health food chain Holland & Barrett might think they had a raw deal being forced to stump up cash for organic security tags, but they’ve got nothing on Congolese cobalt miners. Some of the world’s biggest companies, including Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and, yes, VW have been implicated in a child labour scandal involving their supply chain in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The DRC produces over half the world’s cobalt, which is used to make lithium batteries. A report by Amnesty found evidence that Congolese traders regularly bought cobalt ‘from areas where child labour is rife’ and sold it to Chinese-owned refiner CDM. The mineral is then allegedly used by three other Chinese firms to make components for the batteries that ultimately end up in your smart phone or laptop.
Aside from the major ethical concerns about selling products that could have been built on the backs of exploited seven-year olds, this is a clearly bad for business. As brand associations go, Apple would rather not see ‘child labour’ or ‘hard metal lung disease’ paired with ‘iPhone’.
The responses from the 16 companies named by Amnesty range from flat denials (‘if a violation of child labour is found, contracts with suppliers who use child labour will be immediately terminated’ - Samsung) to exacerbated shrugs. While also reiterating their zero tolerance policy and talking about industry-standard safeguarding, Apple and Microsoft both told Amnesty that they couldn’t be sure where their cobalt actually came from.
There may be some sympathy for that position – after all, raw cobalt ore doesn’t exactly come with a watermark – but blaming the murky supply chain won’t cut it. Particularly for companies as powerful as these, there is a responsibility to make it less murky.
Apple’s admirable policies for when it discovers child labour – including financing their education, continuing to pay them a wage and offering them a job when they reach the legal age to work – indicate that this isn’t a new problem.
Of course it’s easy to say that major companies should just pressure their suppliers (and their suppliers’ suppliers) to get their act together, when imposing change on the ground is no doubt extremely difficult, and even potentially counterproductive. It’s also easy to lay all the responsibility on Apple and Samsung, when it’s a wider and deeper problem.
There is a chance that these firms have been inadvertently benefitting from something abhorrent, however. While child labour probably won’t go away until its root causes are addressed, a very visibly hard line by the tech giants is also necessary – both to help tackle child labour and to protect their own reputations.