Apple Faces Child Labor Scrutiny as It Looks to Take Charge of Cobalt Mines

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A mine employee shows a piece of copper ore at the Kilembe mines, west of Uganda's capital Kampala, on January 31, 2013. The material is an increasingly rare commodity. Reuters/ James Akena

An impending global shortage of cobalt—an essential ingredient in everything from smartphones to electric cars—is prompting a scramble for the scarce mineral that is once again drawing attention to human rights abuses in the mining process.

In order to meet its own cobalt needs, Apple is reportedly planning to go straight to the source and secure it directly from the mines. The news follows investigations into cobalt mines in recent years that have repeatedly revealed incidents of child labor and hazardous working conditions.

According to Bloomberg, the world's richest company has been in talks with mining companies for more than a year in order to guarantee a steady supply of the mineral over the next five years, which human rights campaigners tell Newsweek could present serious ethical challenges.

It is not clear which mines Apple is in talks with, though much of its current cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 50 percent of the world's cobalt supply originates. It is also where some of the most grievous human rights abuses have been reported.

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A worker in a Congolese cobalt mine. Even though cobalt is not classified as a "conflict mineral," the mining conditions are often associated with severe human rights violations, including child labor. Fairphone

According to Amnesty International, children as young as seven were discovered working in cobalt mines in the DRC and in a 2016 report from the charitable organization, children working in mines recounted "being subjected to beatings and extortion by security guards and exploited by traders."

As one of the biggest cobalt consumers—the mineral is used to produce the lithium-ion batteries found inside every iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and MacBook—any deal between Apple and the mines would protect the tech giant from choked supply chains but also open them up to closer scrutiny. Currently, as a "downstream company," Apple is not directly responsible for the mines' practices.

Apple declined to comment on whether it was in talks with mining companies but reiterated to Newsweek its efforts to prevent human rights abuses in its supply chains, including that of cobalt.

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Excavators and drillers at work in an open pit at Tenke Fungurume, a copper and cobalt mine in Democratic Republic of Congo on January 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jonny Hogg

Amnesty's latest report on cobalt supply chains, published in November last year, ranked Apple favorably against other tech firms, citing the company's decision to publish the names of its cobalt suppliers. Amnesty said Apple was currently the "industry leader… but the bar is low," adding that the company still fell short of taking all possible action to ensure responsible cobalt sourcing.

In a 2016 report, Apple revealed that 20 percent of its cobalt supply came "from sources that don't currently have responsible sourcing programs in place to meet our rigorous requirements," adding that it was not cutting ties with these mines because it wanted to effect change.

"We've consciously chosen to stay engaged with mines and smelters that are not yet meeting our high standards and will work with them to develop responsible practices," the report stated.

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The cobalt supply chain: From Africa, to China, and then on to South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and Europe. Amnesty International

Apple also compared favorably to other leading tech companies in a study by Greenpeace last year that judged firms on their transparency, performance and advocacy efforts, though campaigners warn that the Cupertino company will face a brand new type of challenge when dealing directly with mining companies.

Elizabeth Jardin, an IT campaigner at Greenpeace, told Newsweek: "As companies move to ensure a steady supply of cobalt for their products, Apple and others must also take greater responsibility to ensure stronger standards to protect the health of the miners and the surrounding environment."

Read more: With the release of the iPhone X, what is the human cost of Apple's most expensive ever iPhone?

The issue is one that has occupied Dutch smartphone maker Fairphone since 2013, when it began working with traceability initiatives in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The startup's aim was to produce an ethically-minded device, though the complexity of supply chains means it is still unable to boast of a truly fairtrade handset.

"Even Fairphone isn't able to meet its own standards," Tessa Wernink, co-founder of Fairphone, told Newsweek at the launch of the Fairphone 2 in 2016. "There's around 30 minerals in the smartphone and so far we've only been able to trace two back to conflict-free mines."

A spokesperson for the firm tells Newsweek that cobalt is a "focus mineral" for Fairphone and partnered with Hayou Cobalt last year to set up a traceable supply chain for the material.

"Even though cobalt is not classified as a 'conflict mineral', the mining conditions are often associated with severe human rights violations, including child labor," Fairphone said in a November blogpost on its website that explored the issue of cobalt sourcing.

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Fairphone's original mission statement was to "bring a fair smartphone to the market - one designed and produced with minimal harm to people and the planet." Anthony Cuthbertson/ Newsweek

Fairphone describes the need to improve the cobalt mining sector as "urgent" and said it has invited other brands to join them in setting up a new supply chain, but has not revealed which.

In addition to the improvements required in Apple's supply chain, the most irresponsible companies when it comes to cobalt sourcing, according to Amnesty, include Microsoft, Huawei and Lenovo. As demand for the finite resource continues to grow, Amnesty International has called for these companies to take more action.

"This is a crucial moment for change," said Seema Joshi, head of business and human rights at Amnesty International, when its latest report into child labor in cobalt mines was published.

"The energy solutions of the future must not be built on human rights abuses."