Now, the State Department sees a rare opportunity to tackle this long-standing problem “in light of the stories that have come out and the greater concern that companies have exhibited,” said the government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“You have the beginnings of something that can bring about long-lasting change,” the official said.
The Washington Post this year published an investigation detailing abuses in Congo’s artisanal cobalt supply chain, showing how miners — including children — labor in hazardous, even deadly, conditions as they dig hundreds of feet underground. The Post connected this troubling artisanal cobalt trade with the batteries used by some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Apple.
Despite years of allegations from advocacy groups that cobalt mining posed a deadly risk and employed child workers, solving the problem has proved difficult. The State Department tracks human rights problems worldwide, and its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor for years has noted that children work in Congo's mining industry.
The United States currently regulates the trade of four "conflict minerals" from the Congo region. A 2010 law aimed at stemming the flow of money to Congo's murderous militias requires U.S. companies to attempt to trace the sources of their tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. The same diligence is not required with cobalt. While the cobalt trade is not thought to be funding wars, the trade is marred by many of the same abuses found with conflict minerals.
Now, technology companies are increasingly worried about "the reputational risks" of being connected with cobalt that might be mined by children and in dangerous conditions, the State Department official said.
In recent weeks industry groups have unveiled coordinated efforts to scrutinize their cobalt supply chains.
The Responsible Cobalt Initiative is led by the China Chamber of Commerce for Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Importers and Exporters, and supported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Companies such as Apple, Samsung SDI and Sony have joined the initiative, along with Zhejiang Huayou, a Chinese company that buys cobalt from Congolese miners and was featured in The Post’s coverage.
The Responsible Raw Materials Initiative was launched by the U.S.-based Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition. Nineteen companies, including Apple, Dell, Google, Honda, Microsoft and Ford, have signed on.
The State Department official said the agency has discussed the initiatives with companies and industry groups and will closely monitor the progress. And while these plans are a positive sign of change, “implementation of these initiatives is really where the game is.”