Thursday, 29 December 2016

PD Editorial: Stop powering devices on the backs of children

 PD Editorial: Stop powering devices on the backs of children


A “creuseur” descends into a tunnel at the mine in Kawama. 
About 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools 
to dig hundreds of feet underground with little 
oversight and few safety measures, according
 to workers, government officials and evidence
found by The Washington Post. 

The world’s leading tech companies have put a wealth of information at our fingertips through smartphones, tablets and laptops. The price or portability, however, is complicity in human rights abuses, including child labor. That must change, and quickly, for both moral and political reasons.
In a series of recent articles, the Washington Post shed light on troubling mining practices in impoverished communities around the world. The investigation found that Apple, Samsung and major automakers have done little to monitor the supply chain involved in the extraction of minerals used to create lithium-ion batteries for portable electronic devices and electric cars.
Much of the coverage focused on Congo, where an estimated 100,000 miners — including tens of thousands of children — hand-dig cobalt in underground tunnels. There are few safety or environmental regulations, and health officials suspect prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals has led to a rise in birth defects and chronic health problems. Workers in Congo earn as little as $2 a day unearthing cobalt. The element then makes its way to a single Chinese company supplying Apple, Samsung, LG and other tech giants. Apple estimates that 20 percent of the cobalt it uses comes from the African nation.
Other recent stories by the Post have drawn attention to tech industry suppliers. In Tibet, a lithium mine operated by Chinese companies is blamed for extensive pollution. In the “Lithium Triangle” in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, billions of dollars’ worth of lithium is extracted in exchange for yearly payments of $9,000 to $60,000 to the indigenous Atacama.
Tech leaders in the United States and elsewhere say they’re working to sever ties with suppliers who engage in child labor and other abusive practices in Congo. Apple, HP, Samsung and Sony recently joined a reform initiative in Congo involving the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international agency with established guidelines for safe mining practices. The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, a trade group that includes Apple, Dell and other tech leaders, is also working on plans to identify problems in the supply chain for cobalt and other minerals.
A boy carries a bag used to transport cobalt-laden 
dirt and rock at the Musompo market.

These companies have an ethical responsibility to ensure human rights abuses aren’t a basic component of their products. Besides, consumers might love their smartphones, laptops and electric cars, but the industry would be foolish to assume they won’t forsake companies that fail to put an end to child labor and other troubling practices.
Tech companies would be wise to move swiftly for a practical reason, too. President-elect Donald Trump’s antipathy to foreign trade is well-known, and it’s possible he will show little patience with the tech industry, many of whose leaders supported his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The industry needs to clean up its supply chain before the new administration uses the bad publicity as leverage on other tech-related issues.
Finally, consumers must do their part. They must be savvy shoppers who eschew companies that ignore abuses. They also must prepare to pay a little more for their next upgrade. Companies will increase prices to cover costs associated with paying fair wages and providing adequate safety measures. Making sure children aren’t maimed or poisoned isn’t free.