Commentary by Amanda Kloer
Guest blogger on Change.org Tim Newman reveals the dark side of the personal electronics industry: slavery. While I don’t mind avoiding the likes of McDonalds and Burger King and their slave-grown tomatoes, I love my iPod, laptop, and Wii. But the use of “conflict minerals” in all out favorite gadgets means we are too often watching, working on, and rocking out to slavery without knowing it.
When most of us turn on our laptops or make a call on our cell phones, we’re probably not thinking much about where the metals that make these products come from. Yet some of the minerals that keep modern technology running also fuel labor exploitation and conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
It has been reported that the DRC is experiencing the most deadly conflict since World War II. Many people throughout the Congo have been internally displaced and thousands of women have been raped. The conflict is being fought by various armed groups from countries surrounding the DRC, like Rwanda and Uganda, who have “built up a self-financing war economy centered on mineral exploitation” according to a UN report. The DRC is rich with natural resources including tin, tantalum (or “coltan”), tungsten and gold and the armed groups are fighting for control of these resources. Many of these minerals are used in electronic products we buy here in the US, like cell phones, iPods, digital cameras, laptops and video game systems.
Workers in the mines face very poor conditions. The UN has reported forced labor conditions in coltan mines controlled by Rwandan forces in the DRC as well as the labor of prisoners imported from Rwanda. Many mines lack even the most basic health and safety protections for workers leading to very dangerous conditions. Miners experience a variety of health problems as a result of their work and some workers have even died in mine collapses. Since many small scale mines are extremely narrow, child labor is used to dig and mine in these holes. Thousands of children are also involved in tasks like washing and sifting minerals. Adult workers typically receive very low wages and unions, especially in the informal mining sector, are rare.
Far from discouraging investors, minerals from the Congo are sought after specifically because of the widespread abuses. As one business owner told the UN, “the continuing international interest in coltan from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is due to the ‘very low’ labor costs for extracting the mineral.” While companies benefit from the low costs, communities in the Congo see few benefits from the exports of their natural resources.
A broad range of organizations in the DRC and the US are working to pressure corporations to take responsibility for the minerals in their supply chains. You can find out how some specific electronics companies have responded to international pressure here. In order to implement better conditions in the mines, companies need to first track the sources of their minerals. Recently, legislation was introduced in the US to move toward more transparency and to end the use of conflict minerals. This legislation is a first step, but there is still a lot we can do to support miners in the Congo.
Image from bigshinything.com