Most of us don’t think anything of replacing our smartphones – it’s just a normal part of life. When choosing a phone, we’re usually more concerned with its features than with the ethical implications. But the smartphone industry has a dark secret.
I first learnt about the use of child labour in cobalt mining by watching this Russell Brand video on the topic.
In brief, cobalt is a mineral used in smartphone batteries. Half the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 20% of this comes from artisanal mines, where an estimated 40,000 children work.
Some children work so their parents can feed and clothe them. Others work so they can afford to go to school. It’s been reported that children as young as four work in the mines. Some children report working 12 or even 24-hour shifts, often with no food.
Most children don’t go down into the mines – instead, they sort through rubble looking for cobalt ore. They may also have to carry extremely heavy loads. Child labour is of course horrific in its own right. But these children can also develop serious illnesses as a result of the work. They are usually given no protective gear and can develop chronic rashes, along with lung diseases which can be fatal.
Abuse and exploitation
Many children report being beaten at work, or seeing others being beaten. As children don’t know the value of the ore they’ve collected, they are often underpaid. They are paid less than adults, and sometimes sell to traders who estimate the weight of the ore rather than using scales. The children have no choice but to take what they’re given.
The supply chain
So where does the cobalt mined by these children end up? It’s not just a few obscure companies who are using it. Huge corporations such as Apple, Sony and Samsung have been accused of having child labour in their supply chains. In fact, it’s unlikely that any of the major phone and computer manufacturers are innocent of this. Most turn a blind eye to the inconvenient truth about where their raw materials come from. Cleaning up their supply chains would likely increase costs, and most corporations are not prepared to do this.
Most of us would be horrified by the thought of supporting child labour. But the truth is, every time we buy a new smartphone or similar device, we’re probably doing just that. So how can we be ethical without shunning technology altogether?
The most obvious solution is to buy second-hand. That way, our money won’t end up supporting child labour. It will also reduce the demand for cobalt. Besides, buying second-hand is just more sustainable. There are already so many devices in the world, since many of us always want to have the newest thing. Making use of others’ discarded devices reduces waste and saves resources, helping the planet and other people. It will probably save you money, too. I just bought a fairly recent Android smartphone on eBay for under £30. Other than a few small scratches on the screen, it’s in perfect condition and works great. I’m very happy with it.
The long term
You could argue that buying second-hand isn’t truly ethical because it relies on someone buying the phone new in the first place. I understand this point of view, but people aren’t going to stop buying new devices anytime soon. We might as well make use of their discarded ones in the meantime.
But what about a longer-term solution? How can we end child labour in these mines for good? Though many big companies have said they’ll clean up their supply chains, it’s unclear if or when this will happen. The Democratic Republic of Congo has pledged to end child labour by 2025, but again, there’s no guarantee that this will happen. So what else can be done?
A possible solution is the Fairphone, probably the world’s most ethical smartphone. Its supply chain is transparent and it strives to treat workers fairly throughout. The company acknowledges that it’s not currently possible to make a phone that’s completely ethical because of the complicated nature of supply chains. But this is sure to improve if the demand for ethical technology continues to increase. The phone is also eco-friendly, made partly from recycled materials and built to be easily repairable.
Were you aware of the ethical issues with smartphones? Will you change your buying habits as a result? I’d love to hear your thoughts.