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Apple, Samsung, And Other Tech Giants Accused Of Using Batteries Made With Child Labor

Amnesty International says children as young as 7 are used to mine cobalt, a key component in lithium-ion batteries.

[Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images]

Amnesty International has issued a damning report claiming that Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Sony and car makers Daimler and Volkswagen are not doing enough to ensure that minerals mined by child laborers are not making it into the batteries the companies use to power their products. The report traced the sale of cobalt, one of the main components used to make lithium-ion batteries, from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo where children as young as 7 are used to mine the material.

In the report, Amnesty International interviewed over 90 people, many of them children working in the mines. "The glamorous shop displays and marketing of state of the art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow manmade tunnels risking permanent lung damage," Mark Dummett, Business & Human Rights researcher at Amnesty International, said in Amnesty’s blog post announcing the report.

The organization notes that over 50% of the cobalt used in batteries come from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children work up to 12 hours a day without the most basic protective equipment including gloves, protective clothing, or face masks. One 14-year-old miner said he spent 24 straight hours working in one of the mines. Amnesty reports that "at least" 80 miners are known to have died underground between September 2014 and December 2015 alone, but the true number of deaths could be much higher.

A number of companies mentioned in the report have responded to the claims, reports Business Insider. Apple told the BBC that "underage labor is never tolerated in our supply chain and we are proud to have led the industry in pioneering new safeguards." Microsoft reported "we have not traced the cobalt used through our supply chain to the smelter level due to the complexity and the resources required." Sony said "we are working with the suppliers to address issues related to human rights and labor conditions at the production sites, as well as in the procurement of minerals and other raw materials." Samsung said it had a "zero tolerance policy" toward child labor and conducts regular checks to make sure children are not being used.

However, Emmanuel Umpula, executive director of Afrewatch, which coauthored the report, said the companies aren’t providing sufficient evidence to show that they are conducting thorough checks.

"It is a major paradox of the digital era that some of the world’s richest, most innovative companies are able to market incredibly sophisticated devices without being required to show where they source raw materials for their components," Umpula said.

"The dangers to health and safety make mining one of the worst forms of child labor. Companies whose global profits total $125 billion cannot credibly claim that they are unable to check where key minerals in their productions come from," said Dummett. "Mining the basic materials that power an electric car or a smartphone should be a source of prosperity for miners in DRC. The reality is that it is a back-breaking life of misery for almost no money. Big brands have the power to change this."

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