Cobalt is back in the news, as a new report from Amnesty International reveals that tech industry giants such as Microsoft, Lenovo, Renault and Vodafone aren’t doing enough to keep child labor out of cobalt battery supply chains in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and China.
The findings come almost two years after Amnesty exposed a link between batteries used in their products and child labor. Time to Recharge ranks industry leaders, including Apple, Samsung SDI, Dell, Microsoft, BMW, Renault, Vodafone and Tesla according to improvements to their cobalt-sourcing practices since January 2016. The 108-page report revealed that only a handful of companies made progress, with many failing to take even basic steps, such as investigating supply links in the DRC.
The report’s publication is timely, arriving just months after the UK government announced plans to ban new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040, which would ultimately lead to higher demand for cobalt batteries. This last point is particularly problematic as recent reports have revealed that cobalt resources are on the decline, despite demand growth predicted at 500 percent.
“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,” said Seema Joshi, Head of Business and Human Rights at Amnesty International.
“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.”
More than half of the world’s cobalt, a key component in lithium-ion batteries, comes from the DRC, with 20 percent of it being mined by hand. Amnesty has documented children and adults mining cobalt under dangerous conditions, such as in narrow man-made tunnels where there is a high 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 end up in the batteries 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 labor was revealed to them last year.
Company practices were assessed across five main criteria, 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 organization gave each company a rating of “no action,” “minimum,” “moderate” or “adequate” for each criterion. According to Amnesty, none of the companies mentioned in the report are taking adequate action to comply with international standards.
Microsoft demonstrated the poorest performance, failing to disclose details of its suppliers and not complying with even the most basic international standards. This is despite a recent partnership with international development organization Pact, with whom Microsoft is working to address child labor in mining in the DRC. Vodafone provided no details of other DRC-sourced cobalt entering its supply chain, suggesting a narrow approach to considering human rights risks and abuses arising its supply chain, while Lenovo took only minimal action to identify human rights risks or investigate its links to Huayou Cobalt and the DRC.
On a slightly more positive note, Dell and HP showed signs of improvement, putting stronger policies for detecting human rights risks and abuses into place. Apple and Samsung SDI have identified their smelters, though they have not publicized their assessments of the risks associated with these. In December 2016, Apple and Samsung, along with HP and Sony joined the Responsible Cobalt Initiative with a pledge to follow the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) guidelines for mining supply chains, which call for traceability and immediate correction of any abuse. Earlier this year, Apple became the first company to publish the names of its cobalt suppliers and Amnesty research indicates that it is currently the leader in terms of responsible cobalt sourcing. Since 2016, Apple has actively engaged with Huayou Cobalt to identify and address child labor in its supply chain.
Amnesty’s progress report further revealed that electric vehicle companies are behind other sectors when it comes to cleaning up their batteries.
“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,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, Strategy Advisor on Business and Human Rights at Amnesty International.
BMW, which recently unveiled plans to rev up EV production and joined an industry-wide initiative to develop and implement a High-Power Charging network for electric vehicles across Europe, ranked the best among the electric vehicle manufacturers surveyed. Renault and Daimler, however, demonstrated poor performance.
Following Amnesty International’s 2016 report, the DRC government created a committee to address child labor in the mineral sector and drafted a new national strategy aimed at removing children from all artisanal mines by 2025. While it is too soon to assess the impact of these actions, the current strategy lacks concrete timelines, clearly-assigned responsibilities and an operational plan for implementation.
Huayou Cobalt 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.