back to article Amnesty International accuses tech giants of battery bastardry

Amnesty International says children as young as seven are mining for Cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with their efforts helping to create Lithium-ion batteries that may well end up in products offered by top-tier technology companies. The human rights group details its theory in a new piece of research …

  1. x 7

    "artisanal mining" = desperate people trying to earn a few coppers however they can. I this case they're picking over mine tailings, much as in older times wives and kids in the UK would pick over coal slag heaps, or like in India where people pick over rubbish tips.

    The only way to stop it is to shoot those doing it............and if you do stop it you end up with starving kids. Whats the bigger evil? Children dying from hunger? Or children working in poor dangerous conditions?

    The other point is that you haven't a hope of trailing the origin of the ores - there is so much secrecy in metals trading, and so many middlemen that trying to audit the supply line is impossible, especially given how easy it is to decieve

    1. NotArghGeeCee

      @ x 7 - You are Tim Worstall and I claim my five pounds

      1. Tim Worstal

        No, he wasn't......

        The actual suggestion that AI will make soon enough is that Co should be added to the W, Sn, Ta and Au restrictions. That Blood in the Mobile stuff.

        The problem with this, as in El Reg passim, is that it's a grossly expensive and ineffective way of doing it. It cost US corporations (and US listed corporations *only*) $4 billion to bring in the last set of regulations and processes. To no very great effect that anyone can see.

        Face masks and a bit of education on shoring up mine workings would appear to be both cheaper and more effective.

      2. x 7

        no, I'm not Tim - and based on past postings I suspect he would -at least partially - disagree with me over my comments re the source auditability.

        If the ore - and the final metal - were only sold in megatonnes then tracking origins may just be feasible. However its not. One trader will consolidate materials from multiple small-lot sources. Small quantities are traded and can go through many hands. If the cobalt is then converted into a salt, then virtually all chances of traceability are gone.

        Then you have the unsaid word in the woodpile..........China

        China has a massive stake in mineral and metal trading, including Cobalt (as noted in the article). And once products get into Chinese hands then any pretence at source auditing becomes a nonsense.

        I'll give you an example. A few years back I had a short stint as a buyer of garden furniture for one of the UK import houses. All the wooden benches, seats, tables etc had to have proof of sustainability of origin (FSC or similar accreditation) otherwise the big UK stores wouldn't buy. For a short while much had been imported from China, complete with the relevant certs. Then someone pointed out that the Chinese declared exports of FSC accredited furniture (by weight) was three times their declared domestic felling and raw timber imports combined. When you consider that converting lumber into furniture involves around a 70% loss of raw materials, then that's one hell of a discrepancy.

        Quite simply, the Chinese authorities were forging the sustainability / origin certs. On a massive scale. If they were prepared to do that for a non-strategic resource such as timber, then doing it for cobalt is a no-brainer

        PS - if anyone wonders where the "ghost" timber came from, it was mainly Brazil and Burma. The Burmese material was shipped over the border via the opium crooks in the Shan States

    2. TeeCee Gold badge

      Too damn right!

      The other slight problem here is that, if everyone does club together and refuse to buy this shit, all that happens is that it gets to them via a more circuitous route. This means more people in the supply chain taking their cut and less for the poor bastards at the sharp end, who are already suffering grinding poverty. the idealists tend to conveniently forget that for every country that gets all hand-wringy there are four or five more who'll happily look the other way for their 10% if anyone wants to pass the shit off as theirs.

      It's like "Fair Trade" products. The sad fact there is that for every person lifted out of poverty by such, rather more are made worse off by the skewing of the market in the product concerned. Very "fair", if you're in the first group.

      1. frank 3

        The real affect of Fairtrade is that it shifts the whole debate from a commodity-focused trading issue to being about people and behaving with basic decency and fairness.

        This is a generational shift that takes decades to embed, but ends up benefitting all.

        Mars, for example, is on the cusp of announcing that all it's cocoa will be fairtrade.

        All because of consumer pressure to do the right thing.

        It's a slow, messy and imperfect process, but one which is about doing the right thing, today, here, now, in the best way you can. And when enough people join you, it eventually becomes the new normal.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Amnesty International has a record of knee-jerk reactions to things they disapprove of, without necessarily thinking through the whole scenario. Like in Northern Ireland where they set up a service to help the Ulster equivalent of "radicalised teenagers" escape the country under the radar to get away from the IRA, only to discover some time later that the IRA were happily using it to sneak their most wanted members away from the police when things got too hot.

    4. Naich

      > The only way to stop it is to shoot those doing it

      What? This is not a unique problem and that's not the only way to stop it. Blood diamonds are a similar problem and we have taken steps (usually without shooting people) to combat the problem. Obviously there's no guaranteed solution but there are things that can be done which can help. If the problem is secrecy in metal trading then the obvious answer would be to make it more transparent.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Agreed , but I think it's easier for diamonds. With ores the are transformed into a multitude of products, mixed blended etc etc

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Tracking the origin of minerals

      I have read (probably from Tim W actually) that it is possible to track the origin of certain minerals very precisely since different locations will have slightly different ratios of impurities or isotopes. I don't know if cobalt is one of them, and in some cases mixing with minerals sourced from "good" places may disguise that, but it isn't necessarily an insoluble problem in all cases.

      You would still need a commitment from the end consumers (companies like Apple and Samsung, not you and me) to conduct third party audits to verify the agreements are being followed, but would help.

      Then the problem is, what are those people going to be doing if not mining? The ones who are slaves, or effectively so, have no choice. Others do it because they have no option, no other way to earn money, or it is the least bad way to earn money out of several depressing choices. If they die of starvation in three months instead of cancer of 30 years, have we really improved their lives? Yeah, feel good about stopping them from working with dangerous poisons, but there's two sides to the story.

      1. x 7

        Re: Tracking the origin of minerals

        "I have read (probably from Tim W actually) that it is possible to track the origin of certain minerals very precisely since different locations will have slightly different ratios of impurities or isotopes"

        In theory thats correct, and Tim did mention it in an earlier thread.

        However there are a number of technical issues.

        First, its quite possible that the large scale mines and the so-called "artisans" are actually extracting the same ore deposit - but just in different quantities / techniques, so there would be no discernable difference. Next, as you say, traders or processors may well mix ores from different sources. Then the quantities the metals are sold in can be small - for instance if I were to go back to a previous life and wanted to make a batch of a high purity Cobalt salt for vapour deposition work I'd only need a few kilos........but in an manufacturing environment that few kilos once reacted goes a long way and is damned expensive. But how am I - or the middleman who supplies me the cobalt metal / oxide / crude salt supposed to check the origin of the materials? As I showed above, the certs can't be trusted. And I (or most people like me) don't jhave an NMR machine in our back pockets........

        From a practical point of view, complying with any certification system is going to be damned near impossible for many users. Already I'm seeing feedback from suppliers of research materials that the new regulations mentioned earlier by Tim are forcing them to operate outside the law

        1. Tim Worstal

          Re: Tracking the origin of minerals

          It really depends upon the specific item under discussion. Ores can be identified pretty well by location. Not isotopes, but trace elements can be tracked and each ore body is different.

          But the real problem is then processing. If you've something where artisanal processing is possible (say, gold or tin) then you have no hope at all of being able to track material. OK, I can't do it but it can be done, to make metallic tin out of cassiterite with a bunch of rock, some charcoal and some cheap labour. Might not be all that efficient but it would get you something pure enough that a scrap merchant would buy it. Same is true of gold. And once you've got something that can be sold to a scrappie then of course there's just no manner at all of tracking it.

          Tantalum is rather different. You've only got 15 or so plants around the world that can possibly process the ore. Requires HF, which just isn't something that is going to be handled in an artisanal manner.

          Control or not control is something that depends upon the details of the specific technology of that mineral.

          Don't actually know enough about cobalt to know which way that one goes.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cue lots of Apple hate

    Because the report headlined with Apple then they are the root of all evil in the world today and should die today (if not sooner)

    To be fair to Apple they do seem to be more visible in trying to be ethical in this area than most of the competition so they are fair game to be slagged off like this. But they aren't the only ones using minerals sourced like this but Apple are there to be shot at.

    1. frank ly

      Re: Cue lots of Apple hate

      "Because the report headlined with Apple ..."

      Did we read different articles?

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        Re: Cue lots of Apple hate

        Did we read different articles?

        AC must've done. And read a different report than the one linked in the article as well, since the actual Amnesty report doesn't headline with "Apple" either.

        In fact "Apple" isn't even mentioned until page 9 of the report, where they are named alongside the standard tech big guns:

        In seeking to understand how this international supply chain works, as well as to ask questions about each company’s due diligence policy, Amnesty International wrote to Huayou Cobalt and 24 other companies in China, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, UK, and the USA. These companies include some of the world’s largest and best known consumer electronics companies, including Apple Inc., Dell, HP Inc. (formerly Hewlett-Packard Company), Huawei, Lenovo (Motorola), LG, Microsoft Corporation, Samsung, Sony and Vodafone, as well as vehicle manufacturers like Daimler AG, Volkswagen and Chinese firm BYD.

        Hardly click-bait, is it? Unless AC has a weird definition of click-bait...

        1. jonathanb Silver badge

          Re: Cue lots of Apple hate

          Vodafone aren't a consumer electronics company as far as I'm aware. They will sell you a phone from one of the big or not so big manufacturers, but don't, as far as I'm aware, get involved in manufacturing them.

          1. LucreLout

            Re: Cue lots of Apple hate

            On the subject of Voda.... Their statement about being "several steps away in the supply chain" sounds horrendous as a justification.

            Anyone who's read any of my posts will know I'm about as far away from being a bed wetting, hand wringing lefty as it's possible to find on El Reg, and I have every sympathy with the near impossibility of auditing where every ounce of a commodity has come from, but they really need some better PR people on this.....

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Posts that begin with the word "cue"

      Are written by trolls trying to beat other trolls to the punch. The Reg should just silently drop any posts that begin with "cue". Let the poster think it was posted and show up when he reads the site, but don't show it to anyone else.

  3. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    Raising awareness of the appalling conditions kids have to work in is never a bad thing. Solving the problem is rather harder, however. Rather than bluntly stopping "artisanal mining" at gunpoint (which isn't going to work) there may be ways of improving the conditions by educating the people so they employ safer methods or providing safer alternative income. Even simple measures such as providing some protection for the lungs (simple face masks even?) might do more to actually improve the life of the people involved than an outright ban (which will be circumvented).

    Still, it all starts with being aware of the problem

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Does this mean the quinoa-eating, chlorine hating anti-human commies will give up their iphones and macbook pros in protest? No? Thought not.

    1. ToddR

      Re: So

      I have no Apple products at all, but sadly do buy microwave bags of quinoa and rice :)

      If it gets any worse I may end up listening to U2 and Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds, then again nah I wont

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Control at the first step not the last

    There does need to be controls on this stuff, but just blaming the major OEM users is lazy and hugely inefficient. What hope does a server / ipod / battery manufacturer have to know where every mineral used in 100's of vendors sub-sub-sub tiers comes from ....

  6. Graham Jordan


    I thought the outrage surrounding Blood Diamonds were the massacres, the forced labor and child army's in the RUF.

    To me this just reads as "kids have jobs". No mention of forced labor, massacres, Leo DiCaprio avoiding bad guys.

    Sooooo, the problem is "the inhabitants of a poor country try to make a living as Western education, health and energy aren't available to them."

    Am I missing something?

    1. strum

      Re: Confused

      >To me this just reads as "kids have jobs". No mention of forced labor, massacres,

      Then you aren't reading very deeply. We're talking about the border area of Congo, Rwanda & Burundi - where massacres, forced labour, child labour, rape and murder have been happening for many decades - all to feed Western industry with specialist ores.

      To those who decry this pressure on those Western industries who benefit from this situation I must ask - what else have you got to offer?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Whilst ever we want our new shiny shiny tronic gadget pc laptop phablet toys, then this will not go away.

    It will take a fundamental shift in portable power design to curtail illicit mining and dangerous mining.

    Want it to stop? Stop buying things with lithium batteries. Is that ever going to happen? No...

  8. Chris G


    The thing about cobalt is, it is a greater proportion of a Lithium battery than the lithium is. It is currently also fundamental to the operation of said batteries so without it you would have to go back to lower energy/weight density batteries, your phone/iThing would have to be larger and heavier as well as needing more frequent charging and replacement batteries.

    With less demand for cobalt the kids who are currently suffering to produce it will have a lot more time off, and no food.!!

    Pressure against the DRC from manufacturers and governments in the commercial and political arenas may help more if they can be bothered to do anything about it.

  9. Richard Altmann

    DRC is indeed the Heart of Darkness. It is too big a piece of jungle that cant be governened. Even if you would take away Kabila and his bunch of robber barons and replace it with a westernstyle government, it´s just uncontrollable. There are no roads from west to east and when they where it would be impossible to maintain them. And the treehuggers would stop those projects anyway. Not even the former USA, now NSA reigned colonies, are able to maintain their infrastructure or school their children adequatly. The eastern provinces might be a bit better off since their neighbours Rwanda and Uganda have an interest in infrastructure so they can plunder the riches of the country more efficiently. But that´s 5000km of inpenetratable jungle away from Kinshasa. As for the working kids: Mandantory schooling is a preussian invention from 19th century. So they where able, once in the army, to read depeched orders from their generals when they where in the battlefield. On the food crops field they where missing and could not participate to the outcome their families. Therefore school holidays where invented so they could help seeding and harvesting when the time was there. In Europe, there is only headshaking about the extended school holidays in Uganda and other sub saharan countries. But the kid´s hands are really needed in the villages to ensure some kind of survival. Keep in mind that Africa is demographicly underpopulated. In Congo, its living hand to mouth. It´s ever been, not only since the colonial times. So what´s the point of wasting crucial time in non equiped "under the tree schools" with unqualified "teachers" instead of making a living for the family? The kids wont find a job other in the crop fields of their parents or some foreigners mines. Never. It´s a terrible sight for our western minds but this is Africa and western values just can not be applied. In Europe they are working on a bill of "internet for all". In sub saharan Africa it is impossible to even implement a "food for all" bill. That´s not the fault of the corrupt regimes there but the cultural and enviromental circumstances.

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