The price that people, especially children in Congo, pay for our digitalisation and electric mobility is enormous.
In recent years, climate friendliness has increased in various areas of life, especially in Europe, where governments are promoting the purchase of electric cars with high environmental premiums. As a result, the demand for cobalt is increasing day by day without sufficient clarity on the human rights and environmental issues involved in mining this important mineral and other ores necessary for laptops, smartphones and electric cars.
Cobalt is one of the most important metals in lithium-ion batteries, which power everything from laptops to mobile phones to the ever-growing electric vehicle (EV) market. The raw material increases battery life and energy density, which in the case of electric vehicles means greater range as it keeps the battery’s structure stable while it is continuously charged and discharged. An fully electric car requires between 5 and 10 kg of cobalt.
Geologically, there is enough material in the earth’s crust to replace cobalt, but the production level is not nearly as high as it should be to cover demand. Another option is to recycle used cobalt from used batteries. Companies like Redwood Materials in Nevada and the Canadian company Li-Cycle have made a name for themselves in this way. However, the recycling process is harmful to the environment because the batteries have to be heated up to 1000 degrees celsius to extract the cobalt.
In 2015 and 2016, shocking news from Amnesty International and other organisations about child labour in artisanal cobalt mines in Congo caused a global stir. Technology and automotive companies that rely on the metal were prompted by the news to seek “clean” cobalt to avoid human rights abuses and environmental damage. But what has happened since then? What have the giants like Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, VW, Google and Tesla done about the grave and unacceptable situation of mostly young children in Central Africa?
Congo is home to most of the world’s cobalt reserves. According to reports, deep tunnels of up to 50 metres were dug by hand. The tunnels are often so narrow that only children would fit in. The youngest are just 4 years old. According to on-site investigations, forced labour under violence and payment of 50 cents per day was reported. Among others, children who have already lost their parents in the mines and spend up to 12 hours a day digging for cobalt in the dark narrow tunnels without safety and usually without shoes, lights or proper tools. The tunnels often collapse and bury or maim the children.
The miners also reported fraud by the mostly Chinese buyers through manipulated scales, as payment is based on the amount extracted. According to the Congolese Chamber of Mines, Chinese investors control about 70 % of the Congolese mining sector after snatching lucrative projects from Western companies in recent years. China also controls over 80 % of the cobalt processing industry.
Part of the problem is that it is almost impossible for the consumer to be sure that the ore supplied has been mined under fair working conditions. The companies do not yet disclose their supply chains or only publish the direct suppliers. However, when ore is supplied through intermediaries and processed by other suppliers in the supply chain, the source of the raw material is not visible to the end customer.
Locally, there is a lack of legal regulations, controls and sanctions. Corruption and the flow of revenues from the mines to criminal organisations are major factors that would need to be fighted. Safety regulations and strict consequences for violations of these regulations would have to be introduced. The OECD certified mines at least provide information on minimum standards. Not getting cobalt from Africa is not the solution, but drastically improving local working conditions, securing family incomes and giving local children access to food, medical care and education is. Often, parents also need to be educated. The corporations have the financial means and the influence to bring about significant changes on the ground.
To reduce dependence on Chinese suppliers, up to 40 new battery factories are being built or planned in the EU. At least 15 European countries are participating in this programme, according to heise online. Germany alone is expected to account for more than 25% of European cell production capacity. The investments in independence are a positive step, but will have no effect on the situation of the people in Central Africa in the short term.
There are other positive movements. Among others, the Impact Facility’s Fair Cobalt Alliance organisation has been active since 2020 to bring together all stakeholders in the supply chain to take action for better working conditions in the mines in the Republic of Congo. Members include Tesla, Google and Fairphone. There are still unlicensed mines, child labour and inhumane and exploitative working conditions for the mostly young workers. Only investment in infrastructure and pressure on the supply chain for fair pay creates sustainable improvements for the people in the region who depend on income from the mines. It is also worth mentioning that child labour is particularly prevalent in agriculture and services such as cleaning. More than 79 million children worldwide have to work under unfair conditions and most of them do not have access to sufficient water, food and education.
Large companies are currently under pressure to comply with their due diligence obligations in the supply chain. This is ensured by the supply chain act (LkSG) in Germany.
On 23 February 2022, the EU Commission adopted a proposal for a directive on corporate due diligence in the field of sustainability. The aim of this directive is to promote sustainable and responsible corporate behaviour and to anchor human rights and environmental aspects in the business activities and corporate governance of companies. The new rules will ensure that companies take into account the negative impacts of their actions, including in their value chains inside and outside Europe. The core elements of the obligations for affected companies are to identify, end, prevent, mitigate and hold accountable negative human rights and environmental impacts in their own operations, in their subsidiaries and in the company’s value chain.
The Directive also introduces duties for directors of affected EU companies. These duties include establishing and overseeing the implementation of due diligence processes and incorporating due diligence into corporate strategy. In addition, directors must consider the human rights, climate change and environmental impacts of their decisions when fulfilling their duty to act in the best interests of the company. Not only EU companies are affected, but also non-EU companies that operate in the EU and have defined minimum turnover. The commitments also include safe grievance procedures for employees and suppliers in the supply chain.
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