Two words any smart phone user fears: Low Battery. But what if each time we powered up our smart phones, the power of a child who helped to make our devices was taken away? That is the sacrifice that children such as 4-year-old Monica make in the Cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she searches for minerals used to create Lithium-ion batteries.
Exposure to sexual violence and dangerous working conditions are more than just side effects of the demand for smart devices, they reveal a public health crisis powered by international enterprise, armed conflict, and modern day slavery.
According to UNICEF, 40,000 children work in Cobalt mines in the southern Katanga province of the DRC. Unable to attend school, these child laborers are exposed to violence and little-known Cobalt Lung, a potentially fatal disease caused by inhaling hard metal debris.
But what if merely living near a mine increased a girl’s chances of being sexually assaulted? A recent study revealed, “In the Kivus and Maniema, the risk of experiencing non-partner sexual [violence] is particularly high for women that live close to a mine with the presence of an armed actor.” This is the cost of Cobalt.
While job responsibilities are clearly divided between girls and boys, with boys working deep in the mines and girls breaking rocks and sifting through minerals by hand, the rescue efforts that could save these children are gendered, too. It has been brought to the attention of the World Trade Organization “that girls are rarely rescued as they play the multiple roles of scouts, porters, sexual slaves and soldiers.”
You may be surprised to learn that one electric car requires approximately 10-20 pounds of Cobalt. In an effort to cut costs, some companies are shifting towards working with deregulated suppliers. Deregulated mining operations pose the greatest risks to children, as they do not enforce minimum standards or impose safety requirements.
However, with pressure mounting from International Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), several tech companies have pledged to remove child labor from their supply chains. Companies’ responses to supply chain inquiries have been published by the Washington Post, so that we, as conscious consumers, can determine whether we stand behind their corporate ethics.
Discussions between the International Labor Organization and the Congolese government have yielded new commitments to upholding the minimum working age of 15, as outlined in ILO Convention No. 138. The next steps: implementation and ongoing enforcement of international law. Meanwhile, many NGOs and regional partners are continuing to develop comprehensive programs to provide education and vocational training to survivors.
What else can we do as smart device users?
- Use the hashtag #NotInMyPhone to support Amnesty International’s campaign and ongoing investigations into Cobalt mining practices.
- Host a screening of the free documentary Maisha: A New Life Outside the Mines