Apple Steps Up to the Plate: Defending Human Rights One Smartphone at a Time

A 2016 Washington Post investigation of the cobalt industry in the Democratic Republic of Congo brought to light the dangerous conditions that miners there face. Per the report, it is estimated that 100,000 miners search for the lucrative mineral that powers the lithium-ion batteries that power smart phones, laptops, and electric cars. Approximately sixty percent of the worlds cobalt supply is mined in the DRC. Chinese companies then use it to manufacture the batteries found in many American owned company products.

Conditions in and around these mines are abysmal. Artisanal miners are part of small scale networks that lack labor protections and have little if any safety equipment. Many of these small mines are militia-controlled, putting the men, women, and children who work there in danger even beyond that posed by collapses, noxious gases, and floods. Per a 2012 UNICEF report, 40,000 boys and girls mine for cobalt in the countries southern region, and others work in dangerous underground mines or on the fringes of the trade. With few other options and a lack of proper schooling or resources to care for these children, parents send them to work, and Congo’s mining code, which prohibits child labor, is often ignored.

Many companies have been asked to defend their use of DRC cobalt, and some trade groups have acknowledged the problem, seeking ways to address human rights abuses in supply chains. Apple is now doing just that. Earlier this week the company announced that it will stop buying artisanal cobalt mined by hand in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and will scrutinize suppliers, just as it would have to for other conflict minerals under U.S. law. Apple has raised concerns about the economic impact this could have on Congolese miners. This is a widespread concern. Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act requires American companies to disclose Congolese minerals that they use, and this section has faced scrutiny as people worry that pulling money out would harm artisanal miners. Still, Apple has decided to continue efforts to improve conditions for workers in the Congo by creating a program that verifies artisanal miners, requiring them to meet its standards before reentering its supply chain.

In a store, you see items as final products, completely blind to the intricate supply chain and myriad of components used to create them. Addressing the use of forced and child labor will require that companies be responsible for their supply chains at every step. While we should applaud Apple for taking responsibility for its cobalt supply chain, expecting companies to police themselves isn’t effective. That is why Congress has given the Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection (CBP) the mandate—and the money—to enforce laws against forced and child labor. With the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, an amendment to the Tariff Act, goods produced or manufactured with forced or child labor are banned from entering the United States. This ban could compel better practices by governments and companies across the globe—except that the U.S. government has failed to fully enforce it. It’s the responsibility of the Customs and Border Protection to police, flag, and ultimately deny entry of suspicious goods pursuant to section 307 of the Tariff Act. At the same time, CBP should create a program that looks at the most effective ways to identify, report, and investigate problem goods, and implement it across the agency.

Meanwhile, regardless of what the U.S. government is or isn’t doing, more companies should follow Apple’s lead. They should publish annual reports detailing supply chain procedure and prioritize ways to combat forced and child labor. An essential step: complete thorough inspections of worker conditions in supply chains before purchasing products—then act accordingly.


Published on March 15, 2017


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