Indonesia: OEMs Face Human Rights Issues With Indonesian Tin

Pressure is mounting on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to re-examine their supply chains in an effort to stop procuring tin from Bangka Island, Indonesia. Questions about the use of Indonesian tin comes in the wake of recent research that suggests dangerous tin mining practices have caused deaths and environmental devastation on the island.

Concern over tin mining in Indonesia has been raised to a higher level in recent months in part due to the publication of a report from Friends of the Earth (FOE), an international environmental network charged with highlighting environmental issues around the world. Based on a six-month investigation of the impact of tin mining on Indonesia’s Bangka and neighboring Belitung islands, the organization published late last year a report entitled “Mining for Smartphones: the true cost of tin.”

Tin is used for solder, which in turn is used to join together component parts in mobile phones, tablets, and other computer products. According to the FOE report, there are several middle companies in the electronics supply chain such as PT Timah, Shenmao Technology, and Chernan Metal Industrial that use substantial quantities of Indonesian tin, which are distributed to Samsung Electronics and Foxconn Technology Group.

Businessweek noted that Shenmao claims it’s the dominant supplier of solder to China, the world’s electronics manufacturing hub, accounting for 16 percent of the global market. The article went on to say that Chernan has several clients, including Sony, Panasonic, Samsung Electronics, and LG Electronics.

As poor mining practices continue to wreak havoc on the people of Indonesia, the electronics industry should expect to receive harsher criticism from environmental organizations, human rights groups, and others, which threaten to undermine the industry’s claims of social responsibility. In the FOE’s report, the key findings revealed:

Dangerous and unregulated tin mining. Police figures show that in 2011, an average of one miner a week died in an accident. Reports of child labor in the unofficial mines are common.

Coral and sea life is being threatened. Silt from tin mining is killing coral reefs and sea grass eaten by turtles, driving away fish and ruining fishermen’s livelihoods.

Farmland and forests are being destroyed. Farmers struggle to grow crops in soil left acidic after the destruction of forests for tin mining.

In the wake of the FOE report, several smartphone manufacturers have publicly addressed the issue. Here are extracted statements that indicate the level of seriousness with which companies view this problem, but in some cases also highlight the challenges of finding the original source of the metal within a global supply chain network:

Apple: Bangka Island, Indonesia, is one of the world’s principal tin-producing regions. Recent concerns about the illegal mining of tin from this region prompted Apple to lead a fact-finding visit to learn more. Using the information we’ve gathered, Apple initiated an EICC working group focused on this issue, and we are helping to fund a new study on mining in the region so we can better understand the situation.

Samsung: While we do not have a direct relationship with tin suppliers from Bangka Island, we do know that some of the tin that we use for manufacturing our products does originate from this area, which sources much of the electronics industry.

BlackBerry: The Indonesian tin mining industry is an important part of BlackBerry’s supply chain. We have confirmed this through our responsible sourcing due diligence activities. We are very concerned about the reported environmental and health risks associated with the industry and are actively engaged in a multi-stakeholder effort to better our collective understanding of the situation and identify opportunities to influence the improvement of conditions for the people of Indonesia.

Sony: Sony Mobile does not directly source tin from any supplier in Bangka Island, but we found that some of Sony Mobile’s part or material suppliers that are based outside Bangka Island had used tin originated from Bangka Island to make parts or material for use in mobile phones.

LG Electronics: We can confirm that we do not directly source any products from Bangka, but our investigations have revealed that some of the tin used by our third-party suppliers may come from this region. We already have a code of conduct in place, which states that our suppliers must not use materials obtained through any illegal form of mining and we are reviewing our sourcing policy in light of these claims.

Motorola: Motorola Mobility recognizes that suppliers in our global supply chain may potentially use Bangka tin. As a result, we are working diligently with our suppliers to confirm the country of origin of tin used to produce our components.

Nokia: The presence of Indonesian tin in our supply chain procedures or ultimately in our products is likely… We cannot rule out the possibility that tin mined at Bangka-Belitung may be in our supply chain.

While the majority of these companies say they are working with the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) to formulate constructive steps to address the issue, companies need to be reminded of their social responsibility. It is not in their interest to be associated with the manufacture of products that contributes to worker deaths, child labor, or forest destruction.

It will be interesting to see how companies adjust their supply chains as they wring Indonesian tin out of their production process. You can bet we’ll be watching.