Saturday, April 7, 2018

Apple: Materials in your Smartphone come from child labor mines (2018)


        Because of the increased number of lithium-ion batteries being produced, there is a soon approaching shortage of the main element used to make them, Cobalt. Apple is trying to cut out the middle man and buy Cobalt straight from the mines themselves and 60% of the world’s supply of Cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The supply chain for Cobalt is very secretive in the sense of where the material comes from. Once the material is mined it is put into burlap bag with no label on them. The bags are then sold to Chinese or Japanese companies and are shipped out of DRC very quickly with very little documentation. The mines are known for terrible human rights violations and child labor. Children as young as four years old work to harvest the material and are paid eight pence, or 11 cents, a day and normally work for 12 hours a day. In 2016, the DRC revised their labor laws and raised the minimum age of workers to 18 years old, but because of the lack of trained personnel and resources has hindered the government’s effort to stop the use of child labor.


          In this controversy, there are two main parties of stakeholders involved. The first would be the stockholders of Apple. They invest their money in Apple so that that can get a return on said investment. If Apple’s value decreases because they are using child mined materials in their electronic devices, the stockholders will not be happy. The second groups of stakeholders are the children working in the mine. If there were less of a demand for Cobalt to build these batteries, there would be no need for children to work in these mines to harvest as much Cobalt as they can.


          Individualism theory by Milton Friedman says that “The only goal of business is to profit, so the obligation that the business person has to maximize profit for the owner or the stockholders”. As long as an action makes a company’s stockholders a profit and stays within basic laws, an individualist would see it as ethical. For this case, an individualist would say it is unethical because child labor is illegal in the DRC. Even though buying Cobalt from mines that use child labor would be cheaper that buying Cobalt from larger companies it is breaking laws and therefore impermissible.


The main principle that Kantians believe in is the formula of humanity, which states that you should not treat people as a mere means to an end and is focused around acting in good will while still allowing people to make rational decisions. The children in the mines are treated horribly and are forced to work in heat, rain, and other harsh weather conditions. Also, if the supervisors feel like they are not working hard enough, the children are threatened with beatings. The adults in the mines that are in charge are not acting out of good will. They are taking advantage of children that are too young to be working and are also exposing them to harmful chemicals that come off of the material when it is mined. For all of the reasons above, a Kantian would see this case as unethical.


            A Utilitarian says that happiness or pleasure is the only things of intrinsic value and because of this they would say this case is unethical. The children working to produce the materials to make the batteries are nowhere close to happy. They are treated like they are disposable by the adults who run the mines. Also, they are paid so little, they are not able to purchase food on a daily basis and go hungry for days until they can afford to buy food. If a child is working a 12 hour day and still cannot manage to pay for a meal, I highly doubt they are happy.

Virtue Theory

            Virtue Theorists have four points that they consider when deciding what is ethical or unethical, and they are courage, honesty, temperance, and justice. Based off of those points, they would see this case as unethical. Apple was not being courageous in this case. Although they did release a statement saying that they were putting guidelines in place to stop the use of child labor products, they did it to fix their mistake.  They were not being honest because even though they say they lead the industry in supply chain standards, there is no possible way that they can know if their Cobalt is coming from DRC or not because there is no documentation on Cobalt when it leaves the mines in the DRC. Apple was not practicing temperance because the expectation that materials coming from these types of countries are not mined by children is unreasonable. Finally, Apple was not practicing justice because they were not buying this material for a fair price and these materials are collected through unfair practices.  


CBS News. “CBS News Finds Children Mining Cobalt for Batteries in the Congo.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 5 Mar. 2018,

Cuthbertson, Anthony. “Apple Faces Child Labor Scrutiny as It Looks to Take Charge of Cobalt Mines.” Newsweek, 26 Feb. 2018,

Farchy, Jack, and Mark Gurman. “Apple in Talks to Buy Cobalt Directly From Miners.”, Bloomberg, 21 Feb. 2018,

News, Sky. “Meet Dorsen, 8, Who Mines Cobalt to Make Your Smartphone Work.” Sky News, 28 Feb. 2017,

Dillet, Romain. “Apple Could Be Buying Cobalt from Mining Companies Directly.” TechCrunch, TechCrunch, 21 Feb. 2018,

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