Child Labour

26th Feb 2020

This month, five major companies were named in a federal class action suit filed by the Washington-based International Rights Advocates for “knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children.”

The companies named are Apple, Alphabet (Google), Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla, allegedly part of a chain starting with a U.K. mining company selling cobalt extracted by African youths to a Brussels-based trader who then sold battery-grade cobalt to the five major tech companies. A investigation by Amnesty International exposed the use of child labour in supply chains behind smartphone batteries used by such major electronics brands as Apple, Samsung and Sony. To quote the Amnesty report:

The claim was filed on behalf of 14 anonymous plaintiffs who are either guardians of children killed in tunnel or wall collapses or children maimed in such accidents.

In court documents seen by The Guardian newspaper, the Congolese families describe how their children were driven by extreme poverty to seek work at large mining sites where they worked 12-hour days, some for just $2 a day, digging and hauling sacks of cobalt-rich rocks.

The DRC has the world’s largest deposits of cobalt, an essential element of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used to power smartphones, laptops and electric cars. “Put simply, the hundreds of billions of dollars generated by the defendants each year would not be possible without cobalt mined in the DRC,” the legal complaint says.

These child miners, some as young as seven, live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), central Africa. Given that more than half the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC, that one fifth of it is extracted by artisanal (or informal) miners, and that around 40,000 children work in southern DRC where the cobalt is mined, there’s a chance that our phones contain child labour.

Ethical Smartphones

Yet phone manufacturers – global brands including Apple and Samsung – won’t tell us if their cobalt supply chains are tainted by child labour. They have a responsibility to do so, to check for and address child labour in their supply chains, setting an example for the rest of the industry to follow.


Many toxic chemicals go into mobile phones, making their disposal a potential health hazard. This often takes place in the developing world, where labour costs and environmental standards are lower. Greenpeace and Amnesty International highlights the danger that some workers are exposed to when processing old mobile phones without proper equipment, and has persuaded some companies, including Sony and Nokia, to eliminate harmful chemicals including flame retardants and PVC plastic from their products. If you are one of the 15 million people in the UK who are disposing of a mobile phone this year, you can help to alleviate the environmental strain by recycling your handset. Many supermarkets, charity shops and mobile phone retailers offer recycling services, often for a good cause.

Ethical Tech – Who makes your computer?

More than one-third of electronic goods are made in poor countries, notably China, Thailand and Mexico. Some of the larger manufacturers have been accused of ignoring labour regulations by preventing workers from forming associations and enforcing compulsory overtime in their factories.

Environmental pressures

A report by the United Nations University (UNU) reveals that the amount of “e-waste” generated globally is increasing by two million tons a year and reached 50 megatons by 2018 – with Britons among the planet’s biggest generators of e-waste. Britain ranks fifth in the world in the weight of material discarded per inhabitant, with each Briton generating 23.5kg each year. Landfill disposal or incineration is entirely inappropriate for computers, which contain dangerous chemicals including mercury and hexavalent chromium.

Upgra‍‍‍ding and reconditioning

Another potential answer relates to the reconditioning old machines. As an alternati‍‍‍ve to disposal, an attractive possibility is to arrange for the computer’s re-use. Ageing machines can be reconditioned and then re-sold to another user. This process has the advantage of conserving the raw materials and energy used in manufacturing. The refurbishment of computers can also provide a social benefit, enabling less wealthy institutions and individuals to purchase the equipment at a lower price. Several charities arrange for unwanted computers to be sent to schools or developing countries after reconditioning.