Tech Supply Chains Risk Links to Human Rights Abuses

The risk of human rights tainted tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold (3TG) entering the supply chains of tech firms is extending well beyond the traditional home of ‘conflict minerals,’ DR Congo and the Great Lakes Region of Africa, according to new research from risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft.

The company’s newly released Commodity Risk Service reveals that workers involved in the mining of 3TG, which are vital to the production of smartphones and computers, are exposed to a range of human rights abuses in many of the world’s biggest producing countries.

Crucially, many of the risks posed by 3TG minerals outside of DR Congo and its neighboring countries are overlooked by many companies, despite the fact their supply chains could be linked to armed groups and serious social and environmental impacts.

At the severest level, Verisk Maplecroft’s analysis shows that 3TG minerals are being produced at sites under the control of armed groups in both Myanmar and Colombia in order to fund violence.

The United Wa State Army is involved in tin production in north-eastern Myanmar – with output traced to Chinese factories producing electronic products – while armed groups, such as the ELN, control gold and tungsten mining operations in Colombia.

“US supply chain legislation on mandatory reporting and traceability has focused on 3TG minerals from the Great Lakes,” states Stefan Sabo-Walsh, Director of Commodities Research at Verisk Maplecroft. “This can leave tech firms focused on one region despite the myriad of risks occurring elsewhere in their supply chains.”

In its assessment of 20 key human rights and environmental issues related to the extraction of 3TG minerals globally, Verisk Maplecroft identifies tin as being the highest risk 3TG mineral for labour rights violations.

Outside of DR Congo, child labour poses an ‘extreme risk’ in three of the eight largest tin-producing countries – Bolivia, Myanmar and Indonesia – while five are also identified as ‘high risk’ for forced labour, including China and Peru.

The research highlights slavery in both Brazil and DR Congo as posing an ‘extreme risk’ to supply chains.

Occupational health and safety violations are also widespread across the largest tin-producing countries. This is a particular issue in the informal mining sector, which sees artisanal miners and surrounding communities regularly exposed to hazards, including mine cave-ins and the spread of diseases such as malaria.

Tantalum, widely used in the production of electronics, is also heavily linked to child labour, with the producing countries of Mozambique, Burundi and Rwanda categorized as ‘extreme risk’ for the issue.

According to Verisk Maplecroft, child labour and other human rights abuses are much less likely to be an issue with responsible international mining majors, due to their application of best practice international standards.

The problem for tech companies is they often don’t know if the metals used in their products come from irresponsibly managed operations – whether industrial or artisanal – as they lack visibility of their supply chains at the mine or smelter level. This leaves them exposed to the potential for their products to contain tantalum and other minerals mined by underage workers in extremely hazardous conditions.

Pollution of water resources in 3TG production impacting health and livelihoods

Environmentally, the irresponsible production of the 3TG minerals is often closely linked to water pollution, which can have severe impacts on the health and livelihoods of local populations, affecting drinking water and crops.

DR Congo, Peru, China, South Africa and Russia receive ‘extreme’ or ‘high risk’ scores for the issue in Verisk Maplecroft’s gold assessment, while a further seven of the eight largest tin-producing countries are categorized as ‘high risk’.

“Businesses have rightly focused on eliminating their use of 3TG minerals linked to conflict in DR Congo,” adds Sabo-Walsh. “However, organizations need to be aware of the bigger picture when sourcing minerals from different countries – otherwise they risk a consumer backlash or regulatory penalties from the raft of emerging supply chain legislation, such as those set to come into effect in the EU.”

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