Industry giants failing to tackle child labour abuse in cobalt battery supply chains via Democratic Republic of Congo and China
Microsoft, Lenovo and Renault among worst, while UK company Vodafone criticised for ‘very narrow’ approach to investigating human rights abuses in supply chain
‘Companies have a responsibility to prove that they are not profiting from the misery of miners working in terrible conditions in the DRC’ - Seema Joshi
Major electronics and electric vehicle companies, including those based in the UK, are not doing enough to stop human rights abuses entering their cobalt supply chains, Amnesty International can reveal in a new report today (15 November).
The finding comes almost two years since an Amnesty investigation exposed a link between batteries used in their products and child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Amnesty’s 108-page report, Time to Recharge, ranks industry leaders including Apple, Samsung Electronics, Dell, Microsoft, BMW, Renault, Vodafone, and Tesla according to any improvements to their cobalt-sourcing practices since January 2016. It revealed that only a handful of companies made progress, with many failing to take even basic steps like investigating supply links in the DRC.
The report comes just months after the UK government said it would ban all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040, which will lead to higher demand for cobalt batteries.
Seema Joshi, Head of Business and Human Rights at Amnesty International, said:
“Our initial investigations found that cobalt mined by children and adults in horrendous conditions in the DRC is entering the supply chains of some of the world’s biggest brands. When we approached these companies, we were alarmed to find out that many were failing to ask basic questions about where their cobalt comes from.
“Nearly two years on, some of the richest and most powerful companies in the world are still making excuses for not investigating their supply chains. Even those who are investigating are failing to disclose the human rights risks and abuses they find. If companies are in the dark about where their cobalt comes from, so are their customers.
“This is a crucial moment for change. As demand for rechargeable batteries grows, companies have a responsibility to prove that they are not profiting from the misery of miners working in terrible conditions in the DRC. The energy solutions of the future must not be built on human rights abuses.”
Murky supply chains
More than half of the world’s cobalt, which is a key component in lithium-ion batteries, comes from the DRC, and 20% of it is mined by hand. Amnesty has documented children and adults mining cobalt in narrow man-made tunnels, at risk of fatal accidents and serious lung disease. Amnesty traced the cobalt from these mines to a Chinese processing company called Huayou Cobalt, whose products then end up in the batteries that are used to power electronics and electric vehicles.
Time to Recharge assesses the progress that Huayou Cobalt and 28 companies potentially linked to it, or likely buying cobalt from the DRC, have made since the risk of child labour was revealed to them in January 2016.
Amnesty assessed company practices according to five criteria that reflect international standards, including the requirement that companies carry out “due diligence” checks on their supply chain and the requirement that they are transparent about the associated human rights risks. The organisation gave each company a rating of “no action”, “minimum”, “moderate” or “adequate” for each criterion. None of the companies named in the report is taking adequate action to comply with international standards.
Apple leads the way, Microsoft lagging behind
Microsoft, which is among 26 companies that have failed to disclose details of their suppliers, is not in compliance with even the most basic international standards.
British company Vodafone UK provided no details of other DRC-sourced cobalt entering its supply chain, despite Amnesty questioning this. This suggests that it has taken a very narrow approach to considering human rights risks and abuses arising in its cobalt supply chain.
Lenovo took only minimal action to identify human rights risks or investigate its links to Huayou Cobalt and the DRC. Apple and Samsung SDI have identified their smelters, though they have not publicised their assessments of the risks associated with these. This makes it impossible to say whether they are fulfilling their human rights responsibilities.
Earlier this year, Apple became the first company to publish the names of its cobalt suppliers, and Amnesty’s research shows it is currently the industry leader when it comes to responsible cobalt sourcing. Since 2016, Apple has actively engaged with Huayou Cobalt to identify and address child labour in its supply chain.
Dell and HP have shown signs of improvement, including putting in place stronger policies for detecting human rights risks and abuses in their cobalt supply chains.
The dark side of green technology
Amnesty’s previous research exposed a significant risk of cobalt mined by children in the DRC ending up in the batteries of electric cars. The progress report shows that electric vehicle companies are behind other sectors when it comes to cleaning up their batteries.
Joshua Rosenzweig, Strategy Advisor on Business and Human Rights at Amnesty International, said:
“As demand for electric cars grows, it is more important than ever that the companies who make them clean up their act. Governments also have a role to play here, and should take meaningful action on ethical supply chains, a priority when implementing green policies.”
Renault and Daimler performed particularly badly, while BMW ranked the best among the electric vehicle manufacturers surveyed.
Following international attention generated by Amnesty’s 2016 report, the DRC government has created a committee to address child labour in the mineral sector, and drafted a new national strategy aimed at removing children from all artisanal mines by 2025. It is too soon to assess the impact of these actions, though the current strategy lacks concrete timelines, clearly-assigned responsibilities and an operational plan for implementation.
Huayou Cobalt, the key link between the DRC and many of the companies assessed in the report, has made some improvements since Amnesty’s earlier report, and has become more transparent. However, gaps remain, making it difficult to assess the quality and effectiveness of its due diligence practices.
29 companies written to
Amnesty wrote to all 29 companies as part of the research process and provided each with an opportunity to comment on our draft findings. The following companies disagreed with their ranking against at least one of the five criteria: Apple, BMW, Dell, Fiat-Chrysler, General Motors, HP, Hunan Shanshan, Microsoft, Sony, Tesla and Tianjin Lishen. Questions to companies reflected the five-step due diligence framework set out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.