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Fill 'er Up with Child Labor

John Rowland

Posted on March 28, 2018 11:49

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The leaders of Apple, Inc. and Facebook are currently exchanging such pleasantries as "glib," "Stockholm syndrome," "human rights" and "civil liberties." Meanwhile, many otherwise sincere and well-meaning clean energy enthusiasts may be unaware of some very negative unintended consequences. Instead of hideously generating profits off the backs of child labor, perhaps large corporations like Apple should apply their stated ideals of "human rights" and "civil liberties" to their own operations.

Electric cars and smartphones are quite trendy indeed. One can usually acquire these items at some fancy, shiny-looking retail outlet/dealer.

Many may already be aware of this, but the manufacturing of these products requires various amounts of refined cobalt; about 10 grams for a smartphone battery and a whopping 33 lbs. for an electric car. Lithium is also used as a production input.

With 60% of the Earth's cobalt deposits, the poverty-bound African nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) plays host to giant multinationals and their supply chains seeking this cobalt's extraction for use in this manufacturing process. And with the push for so-called "clean energy," demand has surged.

Government bureaucrats help fuel this demand. Such an example is the action taken by the UK's Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who proclaimed a ban of gas/diesel autos by 2040; fully converting to electric vehicles. Such high-minded idealism, however, could be sobering news for the 40,000 children who are forced out of necessity to work in the cobalt mines of the DRC.

The Daily Mail's Barbara Jones has documented kids working these mines as young as four years old. Completely without any labor regulatory structure, these children face a grim daily existence; many experiencing adverse health consequences resulting from their constant exposure to cobalt, frequently identified as "cobalt lung." A portion of these children have also been the victims of physical assault. Some have also died.

As terrible as this all is, there's a really tough dilemma here for some of these children and their families: Work in the mines, or don't eat. Having forsaken work in the mines, if a child dies of hunger, is that somehow more humane? More sensitive?

One simple remedy would seem to be the implementation of a reasonable system of labor regulation. With such a regime in place, and leaving aside the ethics of child labor, perhaps the children could still work, but with all of the appropriate physical protections. Of course, this would cost money; so naturally there would be the risk of corruption, e.g. cutting corners to save on costs.

Or perhaps better yet, the cobalt mining process could somehow become more capital-intensive; re-training the supply of labor upon which manufacturers currently depend. This would certainly entail big cost outlays as investments in physical plant and equipment typically aren't cheap. But with government involvement, the process could be incentivized through accelerated costing and depreciation for any firm making such investments.

Apple Inc., a definite user of cobalt, is well positioned to provide this investment. With at least $75 billion of cash stashed away on its balance sheet, Apple is uniquely situated to make a huge positive and humanitarian difference in the DRC.

However, Apple has only pledged to act responsibly through ambiguous "supply chain audits and risk assessments." As Apple's CEO and leader, Tim Cook can be a real "human rights" difference maker here, or a continuing enabler of this misery.

John Rowland

Posted on March 28, 2018 11:49

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Source: Al Jazeera

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