How Unethical is Smartphone Manufacturing

Nearly every stage in the smartphone life cycle involves something ethically questionable. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images via BigThink)

The fact that smartphones exist at all is nothing short of a miracle. Regardless of the considerable technical accomplishments they represent, the logistics involved in building a smartphone is complicated and widely distributed. On average, it takes 62 different metals to build a smartphone, including cobalt, gold, and rare-earth metals like yttrium and scandium. There are many hundreds of components involved, and the sourcing, processing, and assembly of these components takes place across the globe.

However, with a supply chain this large and complex, it is easy to either overlook or ignore the major ethical concerns related to how smartphones are built. For example, 60% of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), much of it mined by the estimated 40,000 child laborers in that country. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, children in the DRC engage “in the forced mining of gold, tin ore (cassiterite), tantalum ore (coltan), and tungsten ore (wolframite),” and are used “in armed conflict, sometimes as a result of forcible recruitment or abduction by non-state armed groups.” Many mines in the DRC are controlled by militias who use children as laborers to fund their activities in the region. The minerals sold by these groups find their way into the smartphones, batteries, and other electrical devices that most of us use on a daily basis.

Several years ago, a report by Amnesty International exposed the reliance of major smartphone manufacturers, like Apple and Samsung, on child labor in the DRC. As a result, smartphone companies made a variety of promises ranging from investigating their supply chains to ending the practice of sourcing material from “artisanal” mines—so called because the mining there takes place by hand. However, a follow-up report showed that the actions taken by industry leaders were mostly insufficient. Children are still mining cobalt in the DRC, and there is evidence that the product from artisanal mines and conflict-free mines are often mixed together, making it difficult to definitively say that child labor was not involved in any particular batch of minerals.

Once the minerals are out of the ground, they must be processed and assembled into smartphone components. In two factories in Vietnam, the mostly female workers reported working up to 12 hours a day, experiencing dizziness and fainting episodes, and anticipating miscarriages. In China, workers slice and blast phone casings, exposing themselves to particulate chemicals and the 80-decibel sounds of machinery without the protection of respirators, gloves, or earplugs.

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