Child Minors: Can/Should Engineers Act?

The demand for Cobalt has been increasing for over a decade mostly due to Lithium-ion (Li-ion) rechargeable batteries. These batteries are wide spread (smart phones, tablets, etc) and with the development of electric cars the demand for Cobalt is only set to increase. More than 50% of the world’s Cobalt comes from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where 40,000 children work in dangerous conditions. This article will concentrate on the discussion of whether engineers are morally obliged to cease development of batteries using Cobalt.

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What Can I Do?

The mobile industry alone generated 3.1 trillion USD and 17 million jobs in 2015,  that’s not including all the other industries dependant on the development of Li-ion batteries such as electric cars, portable gaming, cameras, sat navs etc. In fact we all use these devices for both personal and professional reasons, as a student I use my phone and laptop on a daily basis as I’m sure you do as well. Many aspects of our modern lives in some way rely on products containing Li-ion batteries.

If engineering as a profession were to completely reject development and production of Cobalt containing batteries the effects on global economics and our society would be immeasurable. Cobalt (both ore and pure) made up 25% ($1421M) of DRC’s exports in 2015, if they were to lose their second most export it would have a serious effect on the country and the people already being exploited.

The Utilitarianism framework dictates that it would be immoral of engineers to flat out reject the use of Cobalt as a much greater number of people would suffer. However this framework can lead to exploitation, possibly the most relevant criticism of it is “Utilitarianism can lead to an unjust division of costs and benefits” stated in Poel and Royakker’s “Ethics, Technology and Engineering”.

The idea of Separatism suggests that the engineers are responsible for only the technical development of Li-ion batteries, while the company executives and political leaders should ensure that ethical norms are met throughout the supply chain. There is nothing inherently wrong with the designing of Li-ion batteries, the ethical problem has arisen due to countries, companies and consumers valuing money over all else.

As a soon to be graduate engineer I’m considering what actions could be taken on a personal level. Rejecting an offer from a company that sources Cobalt from the DRC, I could be turning down a good opportunity for my own career and also turning down the opportunity to make a difference. Without all engineers boycotting these companies (which as discussed above would have a global impact) the position I reject would only be filled by another. With influence within a company an effort could be made to push development away from the use of Cobalt, or at least to source it from elsewhere.

However, the effect an individual has on a company will likely not affect the entire market and it is possible that the only way for the company to keep a competitive edge would be to source their Cobalt from the DRC.

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We Must Do What We Can

As long as it is immoral and illegal to let child labour to work in dangerous condition, the companies should cease the its development unless better treat the artisan miners. The companies employ children as artisanal miners but the companies which use Cobalt to manufacture products fail to meet the due diligence. They did not care about where the Cobalt comes from or how it was mined. All stakeholders are doing damage to the child miners directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Even though the companies know the origin of Cobalt, profit is always placed at the first place. Therefore, when it comes to the complex profit relationship, it is difficult to separate it with the responsibility. Essentially speaking, there is no excuse for all stakeholders to keep out of the affair morally, especially the engineer.

In a way as graduate engineers, we do not only master technology developed by engineers is the fundamental cause. The companies should not only focus on the economic benefits but also pay more attention to the potential damage to the workers. The purpose of science and technology is to serve our life and make it better. But if technology can only work at the sacrifice of children’s rights, it means the aim of developing technologies is lost. Besides, we cannot imagine the terrible consequence of children being exposed to dust containing the Cobalt before they get hurt or even die, we cannot endanger them. On the other side, engineers master professional knowledge and techniques and they are the most powerful and convincing. Their professional knowledge will be the most effective mean to fight for children’s right. In order to minimize the damage to children, the companies should stop using Cobalt mined by child miners. Firms should implement the standard selection process. It is necessary to improve adults’ work environment and their salary, so that the kids do not need to mine cobalt to get money for education.

Kant theory focuses on the action of mistreat artisan miners itself to judge if it violates the norm. It is an illegal action to use child labor in many, if not all, developed countries. Putting others live in danger is fundamentally immoral in any circumstances. Therefore, engineers should by all means suggest the governments from both countries to prohibit it happen.

Further Remarks

The issue of exploitation of artisanal miners in DRC is much more faceted than is discussed in this article with many political, historical and socio-economic aspects. If you are interested in having a much more comprehensive (and technical) understanding of this problem I highly recommend reading this paper.

 

Group 40: Jack Watson, Chak Hei Lee, Xinlei Shi, Tjanhang Yu

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15 thoughts on “Child Minors: Can/Should Engineers Act?

  1. Thank you for the article Jack and others. Do you think the fact that it is child mining rather than adults makes the situation worse, or is the mining in unsafe conditions itself the main issue here? I remember an example I came across back in 2000 that shows how external pressure and corporate social responsibility can improve the situation of mining in dangerous conditions in Africa, See: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/08/22/business/controversy-over-diamonds-made-into-virtue-by-de-beers.html, and for an alternative view see here: http://world.time.com/2011/12/05/the-return-of-the-blood-diamond-and-we-dont-mean-the-movie/

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    1. Thanks for the feedback Alec,
      I think the exploitation of artisan minors and disregard for their well being is an issue regardless of their age, however the fact that children are being subject to these conditions shows the extent of the problem.
      There are parallels that can be drawn between the topic discussed and the diamond issue, however any action would cause an increase in price on cheap consumer products that would have effects to business and individuals across the globe.

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  2. Few grammatical issues, especially in the second half, but other than that really good. I agree that the only real solution would have to come from government intervention, but in a section titled ‘we must do what we can’ saying engineers should merely ‘suggest’ stopping the exploitation of child labour maybe doesn’t go far enough.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback Aneirin,
      I agree that suggesting stopping exploitation would most likely be ineffective, however I’m not certain what more could be done. I feel the best way to have an effect on a global company is to affect them financially, i.e. for consumers to refuse to buy their products until the situation improves. I am aware that this would not only require enough people to know and care enough to act in unity to make a difference.

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  3. A great essay that arise a important issue that no one really notice. Action should be taken but how and what to do is the real problem. Hope that you guys can keep working on this issue and find out the best solution.

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  4. An informative, well rounded argument, bringing a serious moral issue to the fore. I agree that pressure should be put on governments to intervene and if it starts with engineers applying that pressure, then that’s a start …….. from small acorns…… well done!

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    1. Thanks for the feedback Jill,
      I think that pressure from engineers may help but pressure from the consumers on companies with influence and money (particularly if they lose money) would have a greater effect. However I totally agree that engineers may start the motion, and if no one else will maybe it should fall to the engineer who feels something needs to be done to make the first move.

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  5. The separatist argument is particularly interesting, but do executives really have a choice about where they invest? They are really at the whim of the market. Directors of a company have not only a professional but also a legal obligation to act in the best interests of their shareholders. Unless you could justify it in terms of a long-term benefit, the company should not introduce policies which would reduce profits. Therefore, I would draw the separation between the industry and the politicians, as the behaviour of companies is largely deterministic. It is up to the government to align incentives for private enterprise, in order to create the greatest utility.

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    1. Thank you for leaving an inspiring comment, Duncan. I do agree the company would not introduce policies to reduce profits unless the government intervention. If the government would like to change the current situation, putting a tax on the company mismanagement could usually be better than an incentive.

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  6. As I am not familiar with the research field and do not have specialized knowledge, I probably could not give some profrssional suggestions about the content. However, from the aspect of the aim of this text, I have to say that the author stand on the idea of sustainable development which is meaningful to discuss in the modern world.

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  7. It is interesting that authors use Utilitarianism and Separatism to explain this problem. I always believe that technology is both the reasons and solutions of most problems especially in modern society.
    Although the Li-ion batteries is the most mature and stable technology by now, still I believe there will be an alternative source such as magnesium battery. I am not an expert in engineering but I do know that magnesium battery is cheaper and can reserve more energy than Li-ion batteries. Although this technology is not quite effective, I think it may have a breakthrough in the next 20 years.
    As for the child minors in Africa, it may need government, social groups and international aid to work together on it. Because the future of child minors could be worse when they stop digging.

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  8. In this situation, I think the mainly responsibility is not companies, but belongs to government. Government should establish laws to protect children. If companies don’t follow laws but hire child labor, they will face very serious punishment.

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