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Roya Sabri headshot

Silicon Valley Giants Sued Over Human Rights Abuses in Cobalt Supply Chain

By Roya Sabri
Cobalt Supply Chain

Who is responsible for the wellbeing of subsistence cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? A lawsuit put forward on behalf of child miners and their families by International Rights Advocates (IRA), a legal advocacy firm, insists that the tech companies profiting by the billions, in large part due to cobalt supplies, should bear the responsibility.

Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Tesla are among the companies being sued. Each of these Silicon Valley companies relies on cobalt for their rechargeable batteries.

The DRC supplies the world with more than 60 percent of its cobalt. A good portion is mined by subsistence miners — independent contractors who take it upon themselves to find and unearth the metal. The miners climb down shafts just wide enough for their bodies with no more than a flimsy headlamp, a hammer and a sack. If a worker gets hurt or dies, buyers take no responsibility and do not offer assistance or support. Reports by Amnesty International and The Washington Post in 2016 revealed these inhumane conditions, but little has changed for the better since then.

Young children are entering this work, often to help their families pay for the essentials needed to survive. The lawsuit’s plaintiff, labeled Jane Doe 1, reports that her nephew began working in mines to pay his $6 a month school fee. Last year, the tunnel where he was digging collapsed. The family never found his body.

The narratives documented by the lawsuit show that this boy's story is not an isolated incident.

Are small gains enough? Tech companies owe miners more.

Back in 2016, with attention coming to cobalt, Apple acknowledged its culpability — child labor is part of its supply chain. Even so, according to research by Amnesty International in 2017 measuring the due diligence of 26 companies that use cobalt in their products, Apple has done the most amongst consumer-facing computer and electronics companies to change the way it sources cobalt. In that category, Huawei, Lenovo, Microsoft and ZTE, on the other hand, performed the worst, according to that survey's data.

Apple has shown that it can identify all of its cobalt smelters and refiners, and it has taken steps to verify its suppliers’ documentation on procurement methods. The tech giant is also a member of the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, along with companies like HP and Sony. This Initiative is based on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Due Diligence Guidance on Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas — a global standard.

Despite some transparency and commitments, Amnesty International emphasizes that companies, even Apple, have not taken enough action. The report goes as far as to say, “None of the 29 companies named in this report are carrying out human rights due diligence on their cobalt supply chains in line with international standards.”

What are the options for tech firms reliant on the global cobalt supply chain?

The IRA’s lawsuit is the first tangible consequence tech companies have felt from relying on the DRC’s cobalt supplies. The damages, though, may seem like petty cash to multinational corporations like Apple and Tesla. Each of the 16 plaintiffs is claiming damages exceeding $75,000.

This suit, however, may be an omen for future costs to come. The initiative Principles for Responsible Investment, a partner with the United Nations, recommends that investors pay close attention to how cobalt comes into play in their portfolios.

“Human rights violations in the cobalt supply chain could lead to severe brand damage, negative impact on operations, and strikes and disruptions,” the group claims in its report on how investors can promote responsible sourcing of cobalt.

With pushback from lawsuits and investors, though, tech companies aren’t thrown to the wolves. They have options. One example is the Better Mining program from RCS Global Group, where mines are monitored and progress is tracked. The organization’s mines have shown demonstrable improvements in human rights, environmental ethics, community wellbeing and more. RCS provides companies a clear way to track and support the mines that feed them. Current clients include IBM, Sony and Best Buy.

Only one way forward to ensure responsible cobalt

In the case of cobalt, stepping away from DRC mines may not be possible. Cobalt is, first of all, an irreplaceable component of current reusable batteries. Furthermore, the DRC has the largest reserves of cobalt in the world at 3.4 million tons, according to NS Energy.

In addition to saving face and saving money, American companies can lead the way for the largest global cobalt consumers like China. According to many sources, China produces most of the lithium-ion batteries in the world.

The one way forward for companies that are continuing to use more cobalt each year is to take the step past data to action and actually invest in mines and methods that are supporting workers in the DRC and refusing child labor. With a lawsuit drawing closer public scrutiny to this issue, leaning on children for cobalt-procurement by accident or not may not be profitable for much longer.

Image credit: Tyler Lastovich/Unsplash

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

Read more stories by Roya Sabri