What responsibility – if any – does a major corporation have to ensure that the resources they use for their products are ethical and produced from fair business practices?

Some might say none. The purpose of a business is to make money and it is up to the government of any given region to ensure a certain quality of life for it’s citizens. A place like the United States has many labor laws meant to protect the average worker and vulnerable citizens (like children) from abusive labor practices. A country like China has decided those types of laws are not a priority. It’s not the business of an Apple, Inc. (to use an example) to dictate labor laws. They’re in the business of making money.

Others might say that a major corporation like Apple has a moral responsibility to ensure that their products come from fair and ethical labor practices, particularly if they are going to take a political stance on other things like environmental or domestic issues.

In recent years a popular celebrity cause has been “blood diamonds” – diamonds mined under horrific circumstances in places like Sierra Leone and sold to Western markets. The funds are often used by warlords to support their terror and oppression. It seems like an easy fix for a wealthy American – just don’t buy diamonds. There are plenty of other jewels to adorn oneself with and the whole world will know the “sacrifice” that was made in service of protest.

A more difficult issue for the celebrity class in America to take up involves mining of a different sort – cobalt mining. Cobalt is a metal essential to the production of smartphones and electric cars. It quite literally powers the engine most developed societies.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article on the dangerous cobalt mining conditions in Congo. Two years ago approximately 20 global corporations (including Apple) were called to account for their use of cobalt mined under horrific circumstances in Congo.

The work is extremely dangerous, with tunnels flooding, environmental hazards and almost no regulations on the use of equipment and safety apparatuses. Apple and many of their counterparts agreed to be more diligent about tracing the source of their cobalt and cutting off abusers like Chemaf SARL, the chief cobalt mining operation in Kolwezi, Congo. However, two years later there is still evidence that miners continue to work in hazardous conditions.

At a cobalt mine named Mutoshi in Kolwezi, freelance Congolese workers known as creuseurs—French for miners—could be seen in May descending underground without helmets, shoes or safety equipment. The mine’s owner is part of the global cobalt supply chain for companies including Apple and VW.

Miners there were using picks, shovels and bare hands to unearth rocks rich with the metal. Water sometimes rushes into holes and drowns miners, and an earth mover buried one alive last year, said local creuseurs and mine officials.

When queried about the mining conditions, Mutoshi’s acting chief executive Christian Schöppe called the miners “barbarians”, claiming the company resists handing out safety equipment for good reason.

 “This is really shitty work.” He called the miners “barbarians” and said Chemaf had resisted giving them safety equipment because they would sell it.

Global demand is soaring for cobalt, which is used to conduct heat in lithium-ion batteries in products from smartphones to electric vehicles. Cobalt prices have more than doubled since 2016, putting Congo in the spotlight. The country produced 67% of the world’s cobalt in 2017, according to Darton Commodities Ltd., a U.K.-based cobalt-trading firm.

“Selling cobalt,” said Chemaf Chairman Shiraz Virji in May, “is an easy job today.”

Concerns about human-rights abuses in cobalt mining mounted after the 2016 report documenting inhumane conditions among creuseurs, also called “artisanal” miners. Companies have faced backlash from consumers disturbed by the use of workers toiling in dangerous conditions in one of the world’s most impoverished countries.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the lack of concern or regulation when it comes to child labor. Congo has few – if any – child labor laws to protect minors. As a result, many of the creuseurs bring their children and even their wives to help with the digging and washing. All are subjected to the same, unsafe conditions as the contracted miners themselves.

While companies like VW and Apple have vowed to be more responsible in tracing where their cobalt comes from, mining operations thwart many efforts by working with “independent” creuseurs who aren’t technically employees of the company but who are allowed to mine company land without supervision, opening the door for more violations.

In Congo, creuseurs often dig for cobalt outside designated mining areas with no supervision and frequently bring children to work alongside them, say some mining executives and nongovernmental organizations. Congolese creuseurs often sell their findings at markets to traders or directly to the mines’ owners. They produce about 20% of Congo’s cobalt, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

The Congolese government says it is seeking to protect the miners, for whom the informal labor is the only option. “I cannot lie and say that it’s easy,” said Richard Muyej Mangeze Mans, governor of Lualaba province, where the Mutoshi mine lies, “but we are making progress.”

Chemaf sends mixed messages about creuseurs. Its website states its cobalt operations are “fully mechanised,” an industry euphemism for industrial mines without creuseurs, although it also mentions a “pilot” artisanal-mining project in Mutoshi. Thousands of creuseurs could be seen living and working at Mutoshi in May. Chemaf’s Mr. Schöppe said he wasn’t aware of the website’s “fully mechanised” claim.

“We work in bad conditions,” said Fiston, a 32-year-old creuseur at Mutoshi.

Apple and friends claim that tracing cobalt purchases can be a tricky process, but the WSJ report lays out a pretty straight line from the Mutoshi mine to Apple and VW.

• Creuseurs mine Mutoshi, a barren pockmarked hilltop, and sell findings to Chemaf.

• Chemaf sells cobalt from Mutoshi and a mechanized mine that doesn’t use creuseurs to Swiss commodity trader Trafigura Group, the companies say.

• Trafigura’s biggest cobalt customers include Umicore NV, a Belgian chemicals giant, Chemaf and Umicore say.

• Samsung SDI Co., a South Korean battery maker, says it buys cobalt-based materials from Umicore and buys some cobalt directly from Trafigura.

• Apple and VW say they buy batteries from Samsung SDI.

Chemaf’s Mr. Schöppe said he wasn’t concerned about where his company’s creuseur-mined cobalt wound up.

 

A Samsung SDI spokesperson claims that while they are concerned about working conditions, they don’t wish to create a larger problem for the creuseur community by closing down their only employment altogether.

If companies stopped buying it, said Samsung SDI’s director of corporate strategic development, Bernardino Ricci, it would put people out of work. “We’re pro artisanal mining because we don’t want the communities to be affected.”

Schöppe says he has no concerns about the supply-chain issue.

“I don’t care about supply-chain problems,” he said in May at a Chemaf facility in Congo. “That’s a problem for Apple and Samsung.” He stepped down as CEO last month and says he remains on Chemaf’s board. His successor hasn’t begun, and Mr. Schöppe says Chemaf executives can no longer speak with journalists.

It isn’t something most people think about every time they get into their electric vehicle or pick up their phone. However, the issue of cobalt mining is one that affects a large portion of the planet’s population either by providing employment in third world nations or providing convenience in the first world.

Other companies are exploring cobalt deposits in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere. Guaranteed creuseur-free cobalt is available from some big industrial-mining companies operating in Congo, but much industrial production is locked up for years in long-term contracts.

In a 2017 follow-up report, Amnesty applauded Apple’s moves to weed out child labor from its supply chain, saying it is “the industry leader when it comes to responsible cobalt sourcing.” It said VW hadn’t addressed whether certain companies in its supply chain received cobalt from Congo.

The follow-up said: “Some of the richest and most powerful companies are still making excuses for not investigating their supply chains.”

It’s a complicated issue. However, in a day and age when giant American corporations see fit to lecture the rest of us about morality and justice it seems awfully convenient that this is one area they see fit to stay silent about.

Obviously there is no profit in protecting Congolese children from drowning in mines.

One person who seems completely unconcerned is Chemaf Chairman Shiraz Virji.

Mr. Virji, Chemaf’s chairman, at his house in Congo in May, said he was enjoying newfound success a year after nearly facing bankruptcy, having bought a Rolls-Royce for his second home in Dubai. He said he had plans to buy a private plane for Chemaf’s use.

“I’m treating myself,” Mr. Virji said.

How nice.