What happens when the mission to combat an environmental crisis conceals a human rights crisis?
I doubt cobalt is something you think about often or it may be completely unfamiliar to you, but if there is a time to start paying attention to it and where it is from – it’s now.
Cobalt is a shiny, brittle metal with a diverse range of applications spanning the military, industrial and commercial industries. The breakthrough for cobalt was when it was used in the development of lithium rechargeable batteries.
Yep, that means the phone, laptop or tablet you are reading this on features the material.
The foreseeable future does not see the high demand for these tech devices slowing but the value and market for the metal is continuing to increase as the mass production of electric cars looms on the horizon. Electric vehicles are predicted to gain popularity and in turn become more affordable, accessible and escalate current required levels of output. For an idea of scale, phone batteries use between 10 – 20 g of this cobalt and Electric car batteries require between 5 – 15kg.
60% of the worlds cobalt is currently being brought out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a nation that is unfortunately plagued by corruption and unethical mining practices. The current mining situation there is extremely problematic with artisanal and small-scale mining seeing thousands of people work in dangerous conditions. It is an all too familiar picture we’ve seen across the mining world; child labour, 12+ hour days, exploitative bosses, makeshift mine infrastructure and toxic chemical inhalation.
The alarming point of distinction between the state of mining elsewhere and in the DCR currently, is the rates of those trapped in hazardous work environments is set to rise. Everyday more people are becoming socially conscious and using their wallets to take a stance on what matters to them which is a positive step forward. Manufacturers are being forced to take greater responsibility in providing a clean production line from source to service in terms of sustainability, animal and labour rights, just to name a few.
But what happens when the mission to combat an environmental crisis conceals a human rights crisis?
Electric vehicles are a progressive step forward in exploring fossil fuel alternatives, however unless current cobalt mining conditions are investigated and tracked by the multinational corporations promoting these cars, they will not be the guilt free ethical choice you may first believe they are.
As the current situation stands, men, women and children alike are working in putrid conditions risking injury or death to mine the cobalt. An artisanal miner is a subsistence miner who is not officially employed by a mining company but works independently using their own tools.
Artisanal miners make up 15 – 20% of the DRC’s cobalt contribution but they are not independent at all as rebel militias and corrupt government soldiers control certain mining sites and enforce oppressive conditions.
Furthermore the miners are exploited by traders whom buy from them, well aware the workers are not in a position to negotiate cost. Traders also ask no questions concerning where the cobalt has come from allowing for the rampant child labour.
A 2014 report by UNICEF estimated 40,000 children were working in mines in DRC’s south, mainly digging for cobalt. The recent surge means this number does not reflect the magnitude of the problem today. In certain areas of the DRC majority of the community have no feasible employment alternatives to artisanal mining. Until long term solutions can be found to address that, the aim should not be to abandon the practice completely but to make this method safer and more regulated to stamp out slavery.
With many governments and companies making proud commitments on the phasing out and phasing in of electric vehicles, we must increase the conversations surrounding the children who are being harmed in the process. There is currently minimal we can do as consumers in the market but increasing awareness will increase pressure on companies to isolate issues in their supply chains and source from responsible mining agencies.