Cobalt, the most expensive element used in the lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops, and electric cars, is incredibly problematic. According to a new investigative report by CBS News, more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and much of that is mined by children.
The CBS story follows up on a report by Amnesty International, which revealed that cobalt mined by children was ending up in products from some of the biggest tech companies around, including Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, and Samsung. The CBS teams saw children as young as four picking through mines looking for the valuable cobalt. They also saw infants “clinging to their mothers and playing on the dirty ground,” spending much of the day breathing in toxic fumes.
Big tech is fighting back against the charges and the child labor. Apple told CBS it had the highest standards in the industry; Microsoft said “it does not tolerate child labor and that it is working with NGOs to eliminate it”; Samsung is tracing its supply chain; and Tesla told CBS that it performs regular audits, and has very little cobalt in its batteries.
The investigation, though, reveals how difficult it is to ensure that no children were harmed in the making of your iPhone. The team tried to track the materials as it left the mine, but it was quickly mingled with other cobalt at a large market and primarily bought by a subsidiary of the Chinese corporation Huayou. The company told CBS that it set up “a detailed program to eliminate child labor” from its supply chain.