Technology and automotive companies such as Apple, Samsung, Sony, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Microsoft and LG may be using cobalt in their products that has been mined by child labour, Amnesty International says.

The human rights watchdog said Tuesday that many multinational conglomerates are not doing a good enough job of policing their supply chains and allowing so-called conflict minerals into their products as a result.

While many nations have rules that govern conflict minerals, cobalt is not considered one of them under a U.S. law passed in 2010. The list of conflict minerals that the U.S. recognizes includes gold, coltan, tantalum, tin and tungsten.

The group researched cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where roughly half of the world's cobalt is mined. The metal is a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries.

Amnesty says all of its findings are based on publicly available investor documents.

In the process, Amnesty spoke to 87 current and former cobalt miners, including 17 children. 

Children told Amnesty International they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads to earn between $1 and $2 US a day. In 2014, approximately 40,000 children worked in mines across southern DRC, many of them mining cobalt, according to UNICEF.

In a report, the group documents how traders buy cobalt from areas where child labour is rife and sell it to a company called Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt).

According to filings, Huayou Cobalt sold more than $235 million worth of cobalt in 2013.

Huayou and its subsidiaries then process the metals before selling them to battery component makers, who in turn sell them on to a half dozen battery-making firms who "claim to supply technology and car companies" such as the ones listed above, Amnesty said.

kilembe copper cobalt mine congo

A mine worker is silhouetted as he walks inside a tunnel at the Kilembe copper-cobalt mine. The Democratic Republic of Congo supplies about half the world's cobalt, Amnesty International says. (James Akena/Reuters)

Amnesty said it contacted all the companies that came up in its research, and "none provided enough details to independently verify where the cobalt in their products came from," although most offered at least qualified denials:

  • Apple said it was evaluating if any of its cobalt came from Huayou or anywhere else in the DRC, but said "underage labour is never tolerated in our supply chain and we are proud to have led the industry in pioneering new safeguards"
  • Samsung said "neither CDM nor Huayou Cobalt are registered suppliers and thus Samsung does "not carry out any business transactions with both companies."
  • Sony said it is conducting a fact-finding processes, but "so far could not find obvious results that our products contain cobalt originated from Katanga in the DRC. We will continue the assessment and pay close attention to this matter." 
  • Daimler, which owns Mercedes, said the company's procurement does not "engage in any traceable mineral or commodity purchasing activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Concerning the particular case at hand, we can confirm that we neither source from the DRC or the mentioned companies directly."
  • Volkswagen said: "To our best knowledge, the cobalt in our batteries does not originate from the DRC. To our best knowledge, CDM or Huayou Cobalt is not part of our supply chain."
  • Microsoft said it is unable to confirm "with absolute assurance" if its supply chain is involved. "Due to our supply chain complexity and the in-region co-mingling of materials, we are unable to say with absolute assurance that any or none of our cobalt sources can be traced to ore mined in the Katanga region," Microsoft said.
  • LG confirmed that Huayou is one of its suppliers of cobalt. "We requested our suppliers of cathode materials to confirm whether they used cobalt originating in Katanga in the DRC, and one of our 2nd-tier suppliers, Zheijiang Huayou Cobalt Co., Ltd. (Huayou Cobalt), has confirmed that their product contains cobalt originating in Katanga in the DRC."

Seema Joshi, head of business and human rights for Amnesty in London, said companies claimed to have a "zero tolerance policy" for child labour, but could not show actual steps they had taken to prevent it in areas where they source cobalt.

 "We want to see governments stand up and take notice of the findings, a key finding being that international standards calling on companies to take steps to investigate their supply chains are not happening for cobalt," Joshi told CBC's The Exchange.

She also urged consumers to press companies for more transparency on their sources of cobalt.

"The glamorous shop displays and marketing of state of the art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow manmade tunnels risking permanent lung damage," Amnesty researcher Mark Dummett said.

"Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made. It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products."

In a written response, Huayou Cobalt said it "reasonably presumed that the behaviours of suppliers comply with relevant regulations of the DRC and taken the corresponding social responsibilities."

Amnesty said international manufacturing firms have the power to fix the problem even if they are not currently directly involved.

"Many of these multinationals say they have a zero tolerance policy for child labour. But this promise is not worth the paper it is written when the companies are not investigating their suppliers," Dummett said. "Their claim is simply not credible."

"Mining the basic materials that power an electric car or a smartphone should be a source of prosperity for miners in DRC. The reality is that it is a back-breaking life of misery for almost no money. Big brands have the power to change this."

With files from Reuters