BHARADWAJ: Companies should be held accountable for conflict minerals

By purchasing inputs that are extracted through exploitative practices, the tech industry is propping up institutions of modern day slavery

op-CircuitBoard-CourtesyWikimediaCommons

The most common of these minerals are tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold — often referred to as 3TG — which are all necessary for the manufacturing of a variety of electronic devices, such as computers and cell phones.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Across the nation, a number of tech companies have taken bold stances in support of diversity and inclusion, with some even contractually pledging to make efforts towards social justice initiatives. I find it hypocritical that corporations are making these shallow promises, while simultaneously propping up institutions of modern slavery through their global business practices. Information about these injustices must be spread, and companies should be held accountable for their double standard.  

This phenomenon can most significantly be seen in the market for rare metals, which are used extensively by tech companies around the world. These resources, more commonly referred to as conflict minerals, are an assortment of incredibly valuable ores, whose very existence leads to continued instability and chaos in the poor countries where they can be found. The most common of these minerals are tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold — often referred to as 3TG — which are all necessary for the manufacturing of a variety of electronic devices, such as computers and cell phones. The most abundant reserves of these metals are in Africa for the most part, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for instance containing over 80 percent of the world’s coltan, which can be refined into tantalum. 

Quarrels over the minerals have been ravaging already unstable central African nations such as DRC, with reports showing that these metals have been directly sustaining the ongoing conflicts. Even more notable though are the horrific working conditions of the miners who are tasked with extracting the ores from perilous quarries and caverns. Villagers work up to 48-hour shifts in these dangerous mines, where mudslides and tunnel collapses are abundant, and rampant child labor utilization has been reported as well. These standards are enforced by a variety of armed militias, who often use rape and illegal weaponry to control the populace. According to U.N. standards on fair labor practices, conditions such as these can be classified as nothing other than slavery.   

In 2009, Former Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) proposed the Congo Conflict Minerals Act, which would have required tech companies to verify the sources of their minerals as humane, however it was never written into law. Later attempts were made to revive the failed legislation, but these were all struck down by appeals courts on First Amendment grounds. Ultimately, no laws were ever passed to limit these practices, and because of stare decisis – the legal principle of precedent – we probably will never see any. Therefore, the burden falls upon the corporations themselves to humanely self-regulate, which they have proven incapable of doing.

At the end of the day, the horrific conditions that the affected groups face might just be something that we have to deal with in the present, for without them, the West’s rapid growth rates and quality of life would be unsustainable. Though I personally find these acts to be morally depraved, it is naïve to think that they could just abruptly cease, since there aren’t many secondary sources of conflict minerals currently. However, in the same way that consumer demands push companies to use more sustainable, eco-friendly business practices, public outcry and the invisible hand of the free market could lead to the development of alternatives to these valuable metals in the future. 

Therefore, it is crucial that knowledge of these practices be made common, and that we hold companies accountable for the things that they do. We should not laud tech giants for their commitments to social justice when they are the ones propping up institutions that allow for modern day slavery to exist. Instead, we should push them to take responsibility for the lives they’re affecting and research replacements for conflict minerals. Thankfully, it seems as though strides are already being made towards this goal, as alternative metals such as graphene are seeing increased testing in laboratories around the world. It may just be a matter of years before the demand for 3TG dissipates, and stability can be restored to central Africa.   

Milan Bharadwaj is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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