The Inconvenient Truth About Batteries
By: Dion McNeil
Many of us power up our cell phones, use our devices in general and rev up our smart cars. These products are convenient. Lots of people love to indulge in these modern miracles. But very few take the time to ask a simple question, “how innocent is this product?” In this piece we’ll explore just how much human suffering with child labor in particular being a focus goes into providing power for our favorite devices. Perhaps this will make one think twice before going to social media and complaining about human suffering when the very device they’re using to do so could have had a hand in a mining death or two. It’s easy to point fingers at others for buying “blood” products but it isn’t so easy to be honest enough, do the research and see that many of us are apart of the problem in human suffering.
Ever go into a shopping mall or a Walmart to see that convenient Eco-ATM machine? This machine takes in used tablets, music players, cellular devices and so on in exchange for cash. The minuscule amount of money given in exchange for such expensive products isn’t what we need to focus on. Let’s say your product isn’t worthy anything the ATM machine will give a vocal response you can hear that goes a little something like, “you can choose to donate your device to *insert charity here* and many of the devices have precious metals inside of them that can be recycled.” Now that is as vague as one can get. What does Eco-ATM mean by precious metals and where do these metals come from? We think we may have a few answers.
Let’s look at the Democratic Republic of Congo. A huge part of this country’s economy comes directly from back breaking labor. This country is known to harbor precious metals and all sorts of riches which is why, like many African countries, the DRC is continuously exploited. For the purpose of this article we need to locate just how much of this country’s economy is dependent on such back breaking work. If we were to review the United States Department of Labor’s website we find some pretty sickening details. Take a look for yourself:
“In 2014, the Democratic Republic of the Congo made a moderate advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The Government took steps to implement a UN-backed action plan to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers, including by convening national and provincial working groups, appointing a presidential adviser on sexual violence and child recruitment, and arresting several individuals on charges of recruiting and using child soldiers. However, children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to engage in child labor, including in domestic work, and in the worst forms of child labor, including in the forced mining of gold, cassiterite (tin ore), coltan (tantalum ore), and wolframite (tungsten ore). The Government failed to prosecute or convict any individual of child labor violations, and the prescribed penalties for forced or compulsory labor remain low and do not serve as a deterrent. There are few social programs to assist child laborers, and laws and regulations mandating free primary education are not enforced.”
So what we have in this country alone is a government that doesn’t appear to be ultimately effective against child labor and exploitation. But how far does it go? Well we known from what the US Department of Labor tells us that this is a prime source of those lovely metals and products that go into our devices. When the inmates run the asylum and when a government fails to enact meaningful countermeasures to thwart child labor it isn’t any wonder why the wolves would become predators here. The worst part about this is that due to the inaction of adults it is the children that will suffer the most as the children of the DRC are by far the easiest to exploit and use for hard labor.
There may be someone asking, “yes, we know what they mine but how do we know those items go into our products?” Good question. Let us take a look at tin ore. If we were to review this lovely piece by The Guardian we start to see it isn’t just the DRC who has issues with this horrific trade:
“There is a chain here: Bangka and Belitung produce 90% of Indonesia’s tin, and Indonesia is the world’s second-largest exporter of the metal. A recentBusinessweek investigation into tin mining in Bangka found that Indonesia’s national tin corporation, PT Timah, supplies companies such as Samsung directly, as well as solder makers Chernan and Shenmao, which in turn supply Foxconn (which manufactures many Apple products). Chernan has also supplied Samsung, Sony and LG. So it is highly likely that the smartphone or tablet you use has Bangkanese tin in it, perhaps mined by Suge or one of the many tens of thousands of men like him, most of whom earn around £5 a day in a local industry that fetches roughly £42m of revenue for Indonesia every year.”
Still think your smart phone is innocent? Of course it isn’t. In just a few paragraphs we went from Africa to Asia and if we looked hard enough there are all sorts of horror stories everywhere. We tried hard to be fair about the issue to see if there was another side but facts are facts. This trade is a direct exploitation of others so that some of us who live in the west can live comfortably. The “Suge” person mentioned from the snippet located in the Guardian piece is an Indonesian man who puts his life on the line everyday to provide tin ore to the world since Indonesia is in fact the world’s second largest exporter of metal just as the Guardian says. The really telling part is that the Indonesian government aren’t a bunch of bumbling idiots who are unaware of this trade. If we were to look at the Indo Metal website we see that not only is the government aware of what is going on but when the trade is so profitable and as long as the demand is so high what is the motivation for change? Don’t say, “because it’s the right thing to do” as we all know the politicians and powers that be in Indonesia have long sold their souls in exchange for lined pockets of money.
Still not feeling the human suffering part as we only exposed one type of metal? Don’t worry. You’ll be feeling bad soon enough as we go on to the next metal in tantalum ore. If we were to look at this IPS News piece featuring the words of Jean-Bertin, a 34 year old man who acts as a Congolese activist we begin to see the true scope of the problem. “It’s possible that two children died so that you could have that mobile phone,” Jean-Bertin said. What is even more troubling is the idea that the DRC government already tries to penalize such exploitation of child labor but isn’t doing enough. Not only is the DRC government not doing enough to protect these children but according to the Child Soldiers website it wasn’t too long ago that the DRC didn’t explicitly outlaw children being used as soldiers until 2012 when the DRC government and the UN signed an action plan to end such practices. With that in mind who the hell would honestly believe this government gives a damn about children being exploited for darn near slave labor? One would have to require a serious mental health evaluation to actually believe the DRC government actually gives a damn given their history as recent as only four years ago.
Let us go to the final metal mentioned for the US Department of Labor report which is tungsten ore. We find tungsten in all sorts of products from electronics to jewelry. Many of us know what blood diamonds are as even celebrities like Kanye West, no matter if you like him or not, have pointed this out. But Tungsten can be excavated much easier than a diamond, the trade flies under the radar quite often and even if the trade is discovered places like the DRC will do little to nothing to stop it or do anything meaningful beyond saving face. How bad is the problem? Let us consult some sources to see if we can spot some issues here.
See the picture to the left with the men who are digging through mud? Well that picture comes from News Week as we see this problem is very serious. Look at this snippet from that article:
“Experts note the widespread smuggling of ore across porous borders in areas racked by conflict, with scarce paper trails for ore mined by villagers in small artisanal mines in countries where warlords control exports. Moreover, audit procedures at smelters in China and Russia are opaque and vulnerable to corruption. “We’re concerned that the audit procedures are not as transparent as they should be,” says Sasha Lezhnev, who oversees DRC conflict minerals issues at the Enough Project, part of the Center for American Progress think tank.
The disclosure by Apple, which just reported the largest quarterly profit of any company in corporate history, was unusual in that it went beyond a new regulation passed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2012 under the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation act. That new rule requires U.S. publicly traded companies to audit their supply chains and disclose any use of conflict minerals—but not the names of smelters, as Apple did.”
What do we notice about all of this? Apple is one of the most technologically advanced companies on the planet and even they couldn’t spot human suffering in their products until they actually went beyond the legal requirements. Do we really expect all companies will do this? Kudos to Apple for at least trying. But if they, like other companies, are not legally required to name smelters then how do we really track where these materials come from? Everyone who knows anything about metals would know that a smelter is required for such a wide area of trade with such wild profit margins. But it appears that the United States government hasn’t gone far enough, namely, requiring companies to not only audit their supply chains and reveal minerals that may be of the conflict variety but to do everything possible to reveal where those materials came from and who is responsible, if they are conflict minerals, to name the individual(s) responsible. This isn’t an appeal to emotion. There are quite literally lives on the line here.
There will be more articles about this in the future but this is just a first round exposure. If you are using electronic devices then it is the duty of bloggers, writers, journalists and just the everyday person to try to expose the truth. The solutions are simple. Contact your congressman, any politician, write about this, talk about this, go to social media and raise hell. Sure it seems tough to care when our devices make our lives so much more convenient but think about those who are dying as a result. It is not impossible to enjoy your Samsung Galaxy and demand that human rights be respected at the same time. We should all strive for a world where the demand of a product does not demand the blood of our brothers and sisters.
Thanks for reading!
Dion is a writer for the Soap Box Corner. Dion is a 29 year old stay at home dad who specializes in social issues and psychology. If you’d like to contact Dion do so at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment here. Please comment, share and discuss the topics. As always we hope you enjoyed reading this piece and encourage you to be skeptical, question everything and above all else seek the truth.