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Modern gadgets made with child labor

Cobalt is used in many electronic devices, but as Secretary General Salil Shetty of Amnesty International told DW at the World Economic Forum, a lot of it is extracted using child labor.

DW: Salil, here in Davos, Amnesty International just published a report about child labor regarding the production of smart phones and electric car batteries. Could you give us more insight into this report?

Salil Shetty: Well, it's a shocking set of revelations about cobalt, which is a crucial part of what goes into the rechargeable batteries of mobile devices like phones or iPads. More than half the cobalt is produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and unfortunately a significant part of that is manufactured using child labor.

Salil Shetty of Amnest International speaks during a news conference in central London.

Salil Shetty of Amnesty International

According to UNICEF, 40,000 children are involved in this process of artisanal mining, and our research shows that 80 of these children even died just during the last one year or so.

But when we asked companies like Apple, Samsung, etc. who ultimately use cobalt for their batteries, they said that they didn't know anything about it. We were totally shocked when we heard that they don't seem to be aware. Some are saying we have zero tolerance for the use of child labor but the point is: they don't seem to know the facts.

Now, if Amnesty International can find out the facts on the ground then surely, Samsung, Apple and Microsoft, etc. can find out as well. So I think it's a very good example that illustrates that companies need to have very thorough, due diligence when it comes to human rights in their supply chains. And that's why we are presenting this report at the World Economic Forum.

So you think the big brands are not really interested in this information?

Well, we have actually included the response we got from the 24 companies that we interviewed for this study in an annex to the report. So it's not a question of whether they are interested or not; they don't seem to be fully aware of the implications. And this is a bit strange because Amnesty International is not the first organization to raise concerns around cobalt manufacturing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, so they should have already known about this and they should have already taken action.

Children seen working at a cobalt mine.

Thousands of children are used for mining cobalt

So they seem to be very slow and lethargic in their response, and we are very concerned about this. But one thing is the companies; the other thing is the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which needs to take action. And what about the countries where these companies are located? What we call home states? They should be regulating their companies. So cobalt seems to have escaped the focus of world attention.

What should be done from your point of view? Are you asking for a kind of action plan?

We made very clear recommendations. First and foremost, the use of child labor should end immediately and the children and their families should receive the reparations they deserve. And there need to be clear standards and guidelines for the cobalt supply chains. That's absolutely essential and long overdue.

Could you tell us a bit more about where you get your information? Was it difficult to obtain this kind of information?

A bag of cobalt from a mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Cobalt is a key component in rechargeable batteries

This report was done jointly with Afriwatch, which is an African NGO. But Amnesty's research methodology is that we work directly on the ground with our own researchers. We collect primary evidence so we spend a lot of time interviewing witnesses, talking to victims, talking to companies, talking to the government. But it's an open secret. It's not like we had to go and find out, it's not such a difficult process. What's unique about this report is that it documented the process from the grass roots level right up to the international supply chain very systematically.

What about the Democratic Republic of Congo? Did you give them your information as well?

Yes, our process is always like that. We always give our report to the government and to all the other stakeholders. The key findings are made known to them. Unfortunately, the response from all of those parties, whether it was the government in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the corporations, has been very disappointing.

Salil Shetty is an Indian human rights activist who currently serves as secretary general of the human rights organization Amnesty International. Previously, he was the director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign.

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