How many crimes against humanity does it take to build an iPhone?
Technophiles buzz with excitement over the launch of the iPhone 7. Controversy swells over Apple’s decision to gut the headphone jack. Yet for all the hype surrounding the release of every new Apple product, few pause to consider the raw materials needed to make a smartphone, or the pain and suffering required to harvest these materials. When I say pain and suffering I am not using hyperbole. Companies like Apple and Samsung need various rare earth minerals including gold, tungsten, tantalum, and tin to make smartphones. Gold conducts electricity through the device. Phones vibrate thanks to tungsten. Tantalum keeps shrinking our electronic gear. Tin serve as solder in cellphone circuit boards. iPhones and many of our electronic gadgets would not exist without these minerals. Deposits of these minerals are heavily concentrated in central Africa, particularly in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 80 percent of the world’s Coltan (short for the Columbine-Tantalite ore) resides in eastern DRC. For the past 20 years armed conflict has ravaged DRC. Warlords and rebel militia groups control many of these mineral mines. The wealth generated by these conflict minerals has helped fuel Africa’s Great War, the deadliest since World War 2. Between 1998 and 2007, 5.4 million people died from these conflicts in DRC. The body count continues to pile up. Our appetite for. new tech adds fuel to this human conflagration.
Due to an obscure provision in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, US-based companies are now required to annually identify conflict minerals within their supply-chains. Earlier this year Apple claimed a 100 percent supply-chain audit for conflict materials. This audit does not guarantee the iPhone 7 is free of conflict minerals. In theory Apple has installed a mechanism to detect conflict minerals. But given DRC’s porous borders and lack of paper trails, militias can easily smuggle minerals out of DRC and sell them to the international market as conflict-free minerals. In early 2016 Amnesty International reported Apple and Samsung buying cobalt mined in DRC using child labor. This report found that children as young as 7 carry heavy loads for 12 hours in one day to earn $2. Most of these miners, adult and children, lack access to basic safety equipment such as gloves or face masks. These workers face accidental death and long-term health damage. Odds are the smartphone you have in your pocket was brought to you in part by child labor and appalling labor conditions. What can we as consumers do? First, raise awareness. We cannot change what we do not know. If every single iPhone and Galaxy user knew about the human suffering needed to produce their device, many would willingly act. Next, pressure electronic manufacturers to increase transparency and employ ethical and sustainable means of production. Don’t accept empty promises from these companies. Demand government enact policies that will empower the people of DRC and prosecute abusers of humankind. Many of these miners need this work to send their children to school and buy medicine for their family. They need policies which will protect their jobs, health, and dignity. We need domestic and international laws which reward transparent, ethical supply-chains. These laws should punish companies who refuse to examine their foreign partners and who do business with human-rights violators. With these and other changes we might one day be able to buy a blood-free iPhone.
• Caleb Gates works with a local social services agency and has worked with refugees for several years. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org