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23 Nov 2017

Dr Raj Aseervatham, Business and Human Rights Journal

Commentary: A practical step to remedying the cobalt child-labour problem

For child labour in the cobalt supply chain... the most effective remedy landscape begins with proactive and strategic socio-economic marginalisation of the problem, and how businesses can play a major role... Nearly 60% of the world’s known cobalt resources are in the Democratic Republic of Congo... and the cobalt supply chain from this region is riddled with child labour.

In 2017, Apple made public commitments to improving its supply chain scrutiny and reducing the risk of child labour in their products.  How they, and other companies like them (Samsung, Tesla etc) will do this is unclear... With cobalt, we smelt ore that might have been mined by a child together with ore that might not have been, resulting in a batch of cobalt that is tainted with child labour. We cannot separate those molecules, therefore it is harder to separate accountability... 

The cause of this problem is threefold. ... In the DRC, artisanal mining is illegal, [which] sets artisanal cobalt mining up to be a black market industry; unregulated, shadowy and therefore prone to child labour practices... Two is that artisanal mining for cobalt is a commercially attractive enterprise compared to other livelihoods, despite the pittance paid by buyers at the very start of the supply chain... Three: consumers of Apple, Samsung and Tesla products are somewhat apathetic and will probably buy the product irrespective of the percentage of child-labour procured cobalt in it, because “getting to zero” seems impossible.

A comprehensive solution [would include]:... the legalisation of artisanal mining in the DRC;... [an increased] focus [on] alternative economies so that artisanal mining is not the first, most attractive solution for income generation at the household level'... [greater consumer demand].