This week it emerged that major consumer tech brands including Apple, Samsung and Sony may be implicated in a child labour scandal involving cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In its latest report, human rights charity Amnesty International has exposed links between a Chinese mineral firm, believed to supply at least 16 multinational companies, and cobalt mines exploiting child labour in the central African nation. Used within lithium-ion batteries, cobalt is a component of many consumer electronics.Concerns about modern slavery in the cobalt mining industry are nothing new. In 2014 the Telegraph reported on connections between tech brands, Congolese mines and the country’s violent civil war.
For many consumers, this begs the question: Why are brands still buying cobalt from unethical mines?
Do companies care about modern slavery?
Following the release of Amnesty’s report, both Apple and Samsung have reinforced their commitments to maintaining child-labour-free supply chains, while Sony has acknowledged that it is working with suppliers to eradicate human rights issues.
What’s clear from these statements is that all three businesses care about how modern day slavery issues affect their reputations. Concerns they are certainly not alone in.
Of the 16 companies contacted by the charity, only one admitted being connected with Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, the Chinese firm in question. Among the others, five denied buying from the accused company, two said they did not source cobalt from DR Congo and four were unable to confirm exactly where they sourced cobalt from.
Getting to the crux of the problem
The main reason we see these types of stories occurring again and again is highlighted in the original Telegraph article, which describes the “complex, tree-like” supply chains of many large electronics manufacturers.
While a brand may know its immediate component producers, the further down the supply chain you go, the hazier the picture gets. Cobalt mines may be buried deep in the sixth or seventh tier of a complicated, global supply network that includes hundreds or thousands of individual companies.
What’s clear from this week’s news is that current systems and inspections are just not up to the task.
Many manufacturers concerned about modern slavery will specify that their components should be sourced from ethical producers. Detailed audits can also help to reassure brands that their chosen suppliers are not involved in improper practices but they cannot guarantee the integrity of the overall supply chain.
The problem lies in ‘hidden’ vendors who may be subcontracted by other parties within the pre-defined supply chain. They may offer goods at an attractive lower price or be able ship items faster than others, but these benefits can sometimes come at the cost of ethical practices. If this is the case, modern slavery can be present in a brand’s supply chain, without the brand even being aware.
And with more than 50% of the world’s cobalt mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where UNICEF reports that around 40,000 children work in the industry, it’s hardly surprising that some big name brands are affected by the practice.
What’s clear is that the issue is not necessarily a lack of willingness to act on the part of manufacturers but instead an uncertainty as to what they can do that will be genuinely effective.
Supply chain clarity
Businesses need to be able to highlight and prioritise the risks to their supply chains so that they can start to deal with any problems that arise. With greater oversight over exactly who is supplying what and when, brands will gradually be able mitigate and eliminate areas of exposure, including instances of modern slavery.
Segura can help businesses to understand and gain control of their supply chains, whether they already have reams of information or are still trying to achieve a clear picture of exactly who they source from. The software supports businesses to create detailed supply chain maps, with the option to trace the journey of each individual order, ensuring visibility and full accountability across the approved supply chain. As a cloud-based system, Segura is ideal for companies with complicated supply networks sourcing goods from even the most remote places in the world.
As brands gain control over their supply chains, they will be in a much stronger position to prevent the types of issues highlighted in Amnesty’s report. And with that they can be confident that if poor practices in the cobalt mining industry are exposed in another two years’ time, their businesses won’t be implicated.