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Your Smartphone Might be Powered by the Backs of Children

While many await the arrival of the coveted iPhone 7, questions surrounding the device’s specifications, headphone jack, and storage size are rampant in the mainstream media. We eagerly await these technological advances, but we don’t often think about the indirect ramifications these technologies have that worsen the lives of others. Most of us are familiar with the atrocious sweatshop conditions of Chinese factories that often lead to suicides. However, the production of high-value goods like the iPhone has much deeper, darker implications, far beyond the supply chains of Chinese factories. Before the final products can be assembled in one of the many Taiwanese Foxconn factories, the raw materials must first be extracted. The human rights organization Amnesty International (a non-governmental organization), has recently filed claims against multinational organizations such as Apple, Samsung, and Sony (among others), accusing them of failing to comply with Amnesty’s zero-tolerance policy towards child labor.

Artisanal miners work at extracting coltan from the valley below Senator Edouard Mwangachuchu’s mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Source: Uprooting Criminology

Amnesty International’s report focuses on the rampant use of child labor in third world countries, specifically the Democratic Republic of the Congo. DRC powers the international trade of cobalt: a mineral vital to the production of lithium ion batteries. Smartphones, laptops, and electric cars rely on cobalt as a necessary component of their battery lives. The DRC produces 50 percent of the world’s cobalt, and is therefore a dominant player in the industry. According to Amnesty’s report, 40,000 children as young as seven years old are working alongside adult miners in the extraction of cobalt, in mines that are up to 60 meters deep. There is a huge monetary incentive to employ young children to satisfy the global demand for such a lucrative resource. Although the children don’t usually work directly inside the mines, they are still subjected to conditions that harm their respiratory systems, and for as little as 1-2 dollars every twelve-hour work day.

Original Infographic by DPR Graphic Design Editor, Betty Zhou
Original Infographic by DPR Graphic Design Editor, Betty Zhou.

Many have likened these accusations to the pressure Nike felt in the 1990s, after its violation of labor rights became infamous around the world. The issue with this comparison, however, is that the blatant violation of workers’ rights goes far past the Foxconn factories. Although companies like Apple and Samsung claim that they strongly condemn any use of child labor in their supply chains, it is almost impossible for them to adamantly ensure that this does not happen. Companies such as Foxconn purchase raw materials from third party smelters that are protected by non-disclosure agreements, which allow suppliers to safeguard the origins of minerals like cobalt and blur the line between them and the profiteering manufacturers we can all recognize.

Apple, an internationally regarded company, claims that it conducts rigorous audits on its supply chains to ensure that underage workers are not being exploited. In cases where children are found to be employed by the supplier, Apple is forced to fund the workers’ return home, finance them at a school chosen by the worker or their family, and offer the worker a job when they become of legal age.

Amnesty International’s primary focus is preventing the exploitation of labor around the world. While Amnesty acknowledges that perfect surveillance of supply chains is almost impossible, they do call for more transparency throughout the production process. In an effort to shame the corporate supply chain, Amnesty brings to light the hazardous, unethical working conditions of African children. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is very little opportunity for upward mobility; little choice is left for workers but to succumb to life in the cobalt mines. Most of the children work in order to pay for their schooling and learning materials. In spite of these efforts, they barely earn enough money to eat. Amnesty could not provide a precise death count but report that many of the children’s bodies are never recovered due to the poor structure of the mining tunnels.

Millions of consumers around the world enjoy the benefits of new technology, but don’t often stop to question how those products are made. Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, and Volkswagen are powerful, multinational corporations. Although they have set in place stringent policies, there is very little these companies can do to control the global market. Firms have a responsibility to ensure that they are not profiting from the exploitation of child labor. Amnesty makes a case against non-disclosure agreements and calls for a more transparent trade network, with hopes that this will put pressure on tech companies to curtail the use of child labor in their production and supply lines.

For more information on this subject, follow the link to a short documentary provided by Amnesty International.

This article is part of a monthly exchange with the Davis Political Review. The original can be found here.

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