Seeing the headline above, your first instinct is probably to assume Foxconn in China might be the main culprit behind the accusation that Apple, Samsung, Sony (and several others) have violated child labor laws. Over the past few years Apple and Samsung have shown up in the media often with problems relegated to the way workers have sometimes been mistreated by Foxconn (and a few other Chinese based manufacturing partners).
However, jumping to that conclusion would be wrong. Apparently, this new accusation aimed at these tech companies is even more indirect than that. The human rights organization Amnesty is claiming the problem is farther down the supply chain. Apparently, a large number of tech companies which include the likes of Apple, Samsung and Sony have failed to ensure that the minerals used in their products were not acquired using child labor. It turns out that children as young as seven are slaving in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is one of the core components of lithium ion batteries found in our fancy mobile gadgets. Here's a quote with a few more details,
"The report claims that as many as 40,000 children work in the cobalt mines of the DRC. Some of the children interviewed for the report claim to work up to 12 hours a day, earning between $1 and $2 in the process. They work above ground, washing and carrying heavy loads of rocks. Amnesty International claims they often face physical abuse and exposure to dangerous gas and dust."
While it's easy to jump to righteous anger regarding these accusations, the situation is quite complicated. Most of the companies who have been called out by Amnesty have already issued statements that they have zero tolerance policies regarding such practices, so they plan to cancel contracts with any organization linked to these atrocities. Despite that, the larger ones (like Apple and Samsung) will actually have a hard time living up to this standard. The problem is that the Democratic Republic of Congo mines at least 50% of the world’s cobalt. Furthermore, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of the other regions that mine cobalt in large quantities, have similar child labor and worker mistreatment problems.
It's easy to point fingers at the governments of these regions, and that is ultimately where the real changes need to be made; however, changing things on that scale is a whole other world of political complications. Of course, despite this being a complicated problem, at some point, someone must be held accountable in order to affect change. Perhaps, if the corporations which do business in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo could put increased pressure on them to reform their labor laws, then something could be done. Here's a quote from Mark Dummett, Amnesty International’s business and human rights researcher,
"Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made. It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products. Companies whose global profits total $125 billion cannot credibly claim that they are unable to check where key minerals in their productions come from."
What do you think Apple, Samsung and Sony (and other companies) could do to change things?