Article

Backbreaking work: Miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo pass up sacks filled with ore.

Meinrad Schade/laif/Redux

The Real Cost of Your Phone

In the heart of Africa, miners as young as seven risk their lives searching for cobalt, a key element in smartphones and other electronics we use every day

Jim McMahon

Paul* was just 12 years old when he was forced to start working in mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country in Central Africa.

Day after day, he’d descend hundreds of feet underground without any protective gear. Using a small chisel, he’d spend up to 24 hours at a time searching for cobalt, an essential component of the rechargeable batteries that power our smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices.

Collecting cobalt is backbreaking—and life-threatening—work. At any moment, the mine’s tunnels could have caved in, leaving Paul buried in an avalanche of rocks and dirt. Cobalt miners are also exposed to toxic materials that can cause cancer, lung disease, and other serious health problems.

Last fall, an investigation by American journalists highlighted the hazardous conditions of the cobalt industry in the DRC, where 60 percent of the world’s cobalt is mined. The report detailed a number of human rights abuses, including a lack of worker protections and the use of child laborers like Paul. 

Paul* was just 12 years old when he was forced to start working in mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Sixty percent of the world’s cobalt is mined in this country in central Africa.

Day after day, he’d travel hundreds of feet underground without any protective gear. Using a small chisel, he’d spend up to 24 hours at a time searching for cobalt. This metal is an essential ingredient of the rechargeable batteries that power our smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices.

Collecting cobalt is backbreaking work. It’s also a life-threatening task. At any moment, the mine’s tunnels could have caved in, leaving Paul buried under tons of rocks and dirt. Cobalt miners are also exposed to toxic materials. These can cause cancer, lung disease, and other serious health problems.

Last fall, an investigation by American journalists highlighted the dangerous conditions of the cobalt industry in the DRC. The report detailed numerous human rights abuses, including a lack of worker protections and the use of child laborers like Paul.    

Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images (cobalt nuggets); Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images (battery); pattarawat/Shutterstock.com (hand)

Cobalt nuggets, in the hand of a miner (left), are a key component of the rechargeable batteries in our phones.

In response, Apple and other tech companies vowed to clean up their supply chains and pay more attention to how the materials in their products are obtained.

But experts say the problems surrounding cobalt mining won’t be easy to fix. That’s partly because demand for electronics—and the cobalt that helps power them—is on the rise. The amount of cobalt needed for battery manufacturing is expected to double by 2025. (Cobalt is also used in paint, jet engines, and other products.)

Mark Dummett of Amnesty International, an aid organization, says the DRC must do a better job protecting cobalt miners’ safety and making sure that kids aren’t working in the industry. Consumers need
to get involved too, he adds, by holding companies accountable.

“Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made,” Dummett says. “It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products.”

In response, Apple and other tech companies vowed to clean up their supply chains. They also said they’d pay more attention to how the materials in their products are obtained.

But experts say the problems surrounding cobalt mining won’t be easy to fix. That’s partly because demand for electronics, as well as the cobalt that helps power them, is on the rise. Experts expect the amount of cobalt needed to produce batteries to double by 2025. Cobalt is also used in paint, jet engines, and other products.

Mark Dummett of Amnesty International, an aid organization, says the DRC must do a better job protecting cobalt miners’ safety and making sure that kids aren’t working in the industry. Consumers need to get involved too, he adds, by holding companies accountable.

“Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made,” Dummett says. “It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products.”    

A Vital Source of Income

The DRC is one of the world’s poorest countries. According to the World Bank, 77 percent of the nation’s population lives in extreme poverty—often defined as living on less than $1.90 a day. Many people there lack running water, access to electricity, and economic opportunities.

But the country is also rich in natural resources. In addition to cobalt, the DRC has huge deposits of gold, diamonds, and copper. Mining these and other materials can be a vital source of income for hundreds of thousands of people. On a good day, for example, cobalt miners can earn $2 to $3 for their haul. That can be enough for workers to feed their families.

Still, the risks associated with cobalt mining are huge. Many workers lack safety equipment, such as helmets, gloves, and face masks.

“The work is very dangerous,” says Benoit Nemery, a public health researcher in Belgium who has studied the DRC’s mining industry. “Accidents are common.”

Indeed, in 2014, 16 cobalt miners were killed in a landslide, and another 15 died in an underground fire. The following year, 13 people were killed when a mine collapsed.

The DRC is one of the world’s poorest countries. According to the World Bank, 77 percent of the nation’s population lives in extreme poverty. This means that many people in the DRC are living on less than $1.90 a day. Many people there also lack running water, access to electricity, and economic opportunities.

But the country is also rich in natural resources. Besides cobalt, the DRC has huge deposits of gold, diamonds, and copper. Mining these and other materials can be a vital source of income for hundreds of thousands of people. On a good day, for example, cobalt miners can earn $2 to $3 for what they collect. That can be enough for workers to feed their families.

Still, the risks associated with cobalt mining are huge. Many workers lack safety equipment, such as helmets, gloves, and face masks.

“The work is very dangerous,” says Benoit Nemery, a public health researcher in Belgium who has studied the DRC’s mining industry. “Accidents are common.”

Indeed, in 2014, 16 cobalt miners were killed in a landslide, and another 15 died in an underground fire. The following year, 13 people were killed when a mine collapsed.    

Meinrad Schade/laif/Redux

This child is one of many who wash pieces of cobalt in rivers to earn money.

Child labor is also common in the DRC. In 2012, the United Nations Children’s Fund estimated that 40,000 kids work in the mining industry in the southern part of the country, mainly in cobalt and copper mines.

Many of them are forced to work to help support their families. One girl said she started mining at the age of 9, after her father lost his job and couldn’t afford to feed their family. “I could only eat when I had enough money,” she said.

Child labor is also common in the DRC. In 2012, the United Nations Children’s Fund estimated that 40,000 kids work in the mining industry in the southern part of the country. They found that these kids mainly worked in cobalt and copper mines.

Many of them are forced to work to help support their families. One girl said she started mining at the age of 9, after her father lost his job and couldn’t afford to feed their family. “I could only eat when I had enough money,” she said.    

Communities at Risk

Even children who don’t work in the mines are still exposed to toxic chemicals. Many kids sort through and wash the pieces of cobalt brought up by the miners.

Delphin Mutela, now 13, began helping his mother clean cobalt in a river when he was just 8 years old. He told reporters that he needed the money to help fund his education: “The money I get I use to buy notebooks and so I can pay school fees.”

People who work in the cobalt industry aren’t the only ones in danger. Families that live near mines or cobalt--processing areas are also exposed to hazardous elements through the foods they eat, including fruits and vegetables. Crops canbecome contaminated when dust from the mines or from trucks transporting cobalt settles on the ground. Dangerous materials also make their way into yards and rivers, posing additional risks for people.

To make matters worse, says Nemery, miners often find cobalt alongside uranium and arsenic. Uranium can damage the kidneys, and arsenic can cause cancer.

“These communities are being exposed to a whole -cocktail of toxic metals,” he says.

To help end the many abuses of the DRC’s mining industry, experts say, the nation’s government needs to better ensure workers’ safety. The country already has some laws protecting children, but they’re rarely enforced.

Even children who don’t work in the mines are exposed to toxic chemicals. Many kids sort through and wash the pieces of cobalt brought up by the miners.

Delphin Mutela, now 13, began helping his mother clean cobalt in a river when he was just 8 years old. He told reporters that he needed the money to help fund his education. “The money I get I use to buy notebooks and so I can pay school fees,” he said.

People who work in the cobalt industry aren’t the only ones in danger. Families that live near mines or cobalt-processing areas are also exposed to hazardous elements through the foods they eat. That includes their fruits and vegetables. Crops can become contaminated when dust from the mines or from trucks transporting cobalt settles on the ground. Dangerous materials also make their way into yards and rivers. That poses additional risks for people.

To make matters worse, says Nemery, miners often find cobalt alongside uranium and arsenic. Uranium can damage the kidneys, and arsenic can cause cancer.

“These communities are being exposed to a whole cocktail of toxic metals,” he says.

To help end the many abuses of the DRC’s mining industry, experts say, the nation’s government needs to better ensure workers’ safety. The country already has some laws protecting children, but they’re rarely enforced.    

No Easy Fix

Following a 2016 story in The Washington Post about cobalt mining practices, some tech companies promised to reexamine their cobalt suppliers. Earlier this year, Apple announced that it had stopped buying cobalt mined by hand in the DRC until it could verify that the element was being collected safely. But many other tech companies have so far refused to acknowledge their part in the problem.

Advocacy groups in the United States are pushing for tougher laws here at home. Many activists say American companies should be required to prove that the cobalt in their products is mined ethically and without the use of child labor.

In the meantime, Nemery says, it’s important for consumers to educate themselves about how their favorite electronics are made.

“Our smartphones and computers—and many other products we use every day,” he says, “come at a very high human cost.”

In 2016, The Washington Post released a story about cobalt mining practices. After, some tech companies promised to reexamine their cobalt suppliers. Earlier this year, Apple announced that it had stopped buying cobalt mined by hand in the DRC. The company said it would not buy it again until Apple could verify that the element was being collected safely. But many other tech companies haven’t yet acknowledged their part in the problem.

Advocacy groups in the United States are pushing for tougher laws here at home. Many activists say American companies should meet certain standards. They believe the companies should be required to prove that the cobalt in their products is mined ethically and without the use of child labor.

In the meantime, Nemery says, it’s important for consumers to educate themselves about how their favorite electronics are made.

“Our smartphones and computers—and many other products we use every day,” he says, “come at a very high human cost.”    

*Name has been changed to protect his privacy

*Name has been changed to protect his privacy

Jim McMahon

Reporting by Jennifer Barone and Amnesty International

Reporting by Jennifer Barone and Amnesty International

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