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The Dark Side of Electric Cars: Exploitative Labor Practices

6 minute read
Dummett is Business and Human rights Researcher at Amnesty International.

The Scottish government recently announced plans to, by 2032, phase out petrol and diesel vehicles. By 2040, the only cars on United Kingdom roads will also be electric, and petrol stations will be replaced by car charging points. Meanwhile, in the United States, Elon Musk has announced the launch of the Tesla Model 3, which he hopes will become the world’s first mass-market electric car.

This shift to green technology is extremely welcome. Climate change is one of the biggest human rights challenges of our time, and cities from London to Delhi are choking on vehicle fumes. The move to electric cars will improve air quality and cut the carbon emissions that have pushed our planet to breaking point.

But some electric cars are not, currently, as ethically “clean” as manufacturers would have us believe. Amnesty International’s research has shown that cobalt mined by children and adults in extremely hazardous conditions could be entering the supply chains of some of the world’s largest carmakers.

A key component of the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries on which electric cars run is cobalt. More than half of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite its mineral riches, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, and has suffered from decades of war and corrupt leaders. With so few formal jobs in the country, hundreds of thousands of Congolese men, women and children, have been driven to dig their own mines to earn their livelihoods.

Government officials told us that 20% of the cobalt exported from the DRC comes from these so-called “artisanal” miners. The true figure is likely higher. The artisanal mines produce cheaper cobalt than industrial mines (partly because people are paid so little and are unregulated) and as demand has grown, we have heard of new mine sites being developed across the region.

What this means is that a huge amount of the global cobalt supplies comes from these mines. While we do not know where most of it ends up, it is reasonable to assume that it is entering the supply chains of the handful of companies which dominate the car battery market.

Working with a Congolese NGO, Afrewatch, Amnesty International found children as young as seven in the mining areas. None of the adult or child miners we saw wore facemasks that could prevent them from inhaling cobalt dust, which could lead to potentially fatal lung disease. Mines collapse frequently, burying people underground. No one knows the exact figure, but UNICEF estimates that 40,000 children work in mining across the south of the DRC where cobalt is found.

Using company records, our investigation into the supply of cobalt traced it from the mines in the DRC to Chinese buying companies and smelters, through battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea and on to battery makers who supply many of the world’s leading electric car companies.

So, what should these companies be doing?

In 2012, The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) laid out clear guidelines for companies sourcing cobalt and other minerals from high-risk areas like the DRC. According to these guidelines, electric car manufacturers and battery makers should be able to say who their smelters or refiners are, and should make public their own assessment of whether the smelter’s due diligence practices are adequate in identifying and addressing human rights risks and abuses. We have contacted many of the largest companies and, not a single car manufacturer told us they had actually done this.

This could be because cobalt has been overlooked by narrowly drafted “conflict minerals” rules adopted in the United States in 2010 and the European Union earlier this year, meaning it escapes strict regulation. But there is no excuse for some of the richest companies in the world not to undertake proper due diligence.

Since our report came out in 2016, there has been some progress. Several companies — including some from China — have formed a body called the Responsible Cobalt Initiative to help the industry conduct due diligence in line with the OECD standards, and tackle the issue of child labour in the DRC. They include leading tech firms, such as Apple; HP; Huawei and Sony; as well as Samsung SDI, a battery manufacturer; and Huayou Cobalt, a smelter and refiner, whose subsidiary purchases cobalt from artisanal mines. None of the members of this group is as yet a carmaker. Meanwhile in the DRC, the government announced that it would take action to eliminate child labor in its mines by 2025 and appealed for international help to do so.

The electric car industry must understand that transparency of human rights risks abuses arising in their supply chains is the way forward. I have been told by numerous executives from different global brands how difficult it is to map the cobalt supply chain. But surely any responsible company, understanding that there’s a risk of child labor, should make every effort possible to understand who their suppliers are, and the conditions under which their components were produced. Earlier this year, Apple became the first company to publish the names of their cobalt suppliers — proving that it can be done. Which carmaker will win the race to do likewise?

The other response we hear from companies is that they want to stop buying from artisanal mines in the DRC altogether. But this could have a negative impact on the already impoverished communities that rely on mining. Companies that have benefitted from child labor should not just walk away from the problem now that it has been exposed. The solution lies in regulating these artisanal mines, ensuring that that they are safe places to work, while children attend school instead.

Governments around the world should pass laws that require companies to check and publicly disclose information about where they source minerals. The voluntary approach is not enough.

This does not have to be a choice between two evils. We need to phase out fossil fuels, and electric cars are an integral part of a greener future. But as electric car manufacturers move to the forefront of the market, they need to drastically improve their practices and take steps to ensure that their role in the energy revolution is truly clean and fair. A green future built on the backs of exploited children in the DRC is no kind of progress.

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