The dark side of electric cars: labor exploitation

Mark Dummett, Amnesty International’s corporate human rights researcher

The Scottish government recently announced its intention to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032. By 2040, the only cars on UK roads will also be electric and refueling stations will have replaced petrol stations. In the United States, Elon Musk has announced the launch of its Tesla Model 3, which is expected to be the world’s first consumer electric car.

This move towards green technology is more than welcome. Climate change is one of the defining human rights challenges of our time and cities from London to Delhi are drowning in exhaust fumes. The transition to the electric car will improve air quality and reduce the carbon emissions that are bringing our planet to its breaking point.

However, some electric cars are not as “clean” ethically as the manufacturers want us to believe. Amnesty International’s research shows that cobalt extracted by children and adults in extremely dangerous conditions can enter the supply chain of some of the world’s largest carmakers.

Cobalt is an essential component of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries used in electric cars. More than half of the world’s cobalt is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Despite its richness in minerals, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world and it suffered for decades from the war and corruption of its leaders. Because legal jobs are too rare in the country, hundreds of thousands of Congolese men, women and children have to dig their own mines to stay afloat.

According to government officials, 20% of the cobalt exported from the DRC comes from these “artisanal” mines. This figure is probably underestimated. Production costs are lower in artisanal mines than in industrial mines (mainly due to the low remuneration of miners and the absence of regulations). As demand has increased, we have heard of new mining sites being developed in the area.

As a result, much of the world’s cobalt supply comes from these mines. While we don’t know where most of this cobalt will end up, it’s safe to assume that it reaches the supply chains of the few companies that dominate the car battery market.

Working with Afrewatch, a Congolese NGO, Amnesty International has found that children up to the age of seven sometimes work in mining areas. None of the children or minors we saw wore masks to avoid inhaling cobalt dust, which can cause deadly lung damage. Mines often collapse, burying people underground. No one knows the exact figure, but UNICEF estimates that 40,000 children work in the mines in southern DRC where cobalt is mined.

Based on company documents, our research into the supply of cobalt has made it possible to trace the route of this mineral from the mines of the DRC to the Chinese malls and smelters, then to the producers of battery components in the China and South Korea. , the battery manufacturers that supply most of the world’s leading electric vehicle manufacturers.

So what should these companies do?

In 2012, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) set clear guidelines for companies coming from cobalt and other minerals mined in high-risk areas such as the DRC. In accordance with these guidelines, electric car manufacturers and battery manufacturers should be able to identify their smelters and refiners, and publicly disclose their own assessment of the smelter’s due diligence practices. to the identification and elimination of human rights risks and abuses. We contacted most of the big companies and no car manufacturer said they had done so.

This is probably due to the fact that cobalt is not included in the restrictive rules on “conflict zone minerals” adopted in the United States in 2010 and in the European Union in 2017. Therefore, it escapes any strict regulation. However, there is no excuse for some of the most successful companies in the world to fail in their duty of care.

Since the publication of our report in 2016, we have seen progress. Several companies, including the Chinese, have set up the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, with the aim of helping the industry to comply with OECD standards and address the issue of child labor in the DRC. These companies include leading technology companies such as Apple, HP, Huawei and Sony, as well as battery maker Samsung SDI and foundry / refiner Huayou Cobalt, whose subsidiary buys cobalt from artisanal mines. There are currently no car manufacturers among its members.

In the DRC, the government has announced that it will take steps to eliminate child labor in its mines by 2025 and has called on the international community to help achieve this.

The electric car industry must understand that it must prioritize transparency over the risks of human rights abuses in supply chains. Many executives from different international brands have shared with me the difficulty of mapping the cobalt supply chain.

Undoubtedly, a responsible company, knowing that there is a risk of child labor, should do everything possible to know who their suppliers are and under what conditions their components occur. In 2017, Apple led the way by publishing the names of its cobalt suppliers, proving that it is possible. Who will be the first carmaker to follow suit?

The other part of the companies’ response concerns their desire to stop completely supplying the DRC’s artisanal mines. However, this risks having a negative impact on the already poor communities that depend on this activity. Businesses that have benefited from child labor should not simply walk away from the problem now that it has been exposed. The solution is to regulate these artisanal mines, to ensure that they are safe places to work and that children are now in school.

Governments around the world need to pass laws that require companies to publicly audit and disclose information about the source of the minerals they buy. Voluntary business initiatives are not enough.

It doesn’t have to be a choice between two evils. We need to eliminate fossil fuels, while electric cars are essential for a greener future. As electric car manufacturers move to the forefront of the market, they must radically improve their practices and take steps to ensure that their role in the energy revolution is transparent and fair. A green future built at the expense of exploited children in the DRC would not be progress.

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