It’s easy for the electrical vehicle industry to get a little evangelical about cars that will cut pollution and potentially help conserve the world we live in. But Amnesty International has issued a chilling wake up call, suggesting that some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers are actually fuelling conflicts and profiting from inhumane child labor in Africa.

A report published last week has singled out the likes of Mercedes, VW and BYD, together with major battery manufacturers like LG Chem. The supplier provides the batteries for GM ad Nissan.

It accuses them, together with the likes of Apple and Samsung, of fuelling conflicts and supporting working conditions that amount to a violation of human rights.

Tesla and Panasonic are in the  clear

Tesla and Panasonic were clearly separated from the pack in the report published in collaboration with Afrewatch as they source their Cobalt from the Philippines. We should note that Tesla recently signed a supply deal with LG Chem, but now the Palo Alto company has produced a detailed response to the report and is keen to prove it is not involved in any human rights abuse.

So, there is some good news as Tesla is the biggest seller mentioned in the report, but there are clear warnings that the EV industry needs to clean up its act and stop supporting draconian working practices that simply wouldn’t be allowed in the First World.

The report concentrated on the supplies of Cobalt, but also covered other minerals that are critical to Lithium-Ion battery production. It does not make for pleasant reading and it is summarized  in this  video.

Congo is  a hotbed of child labor

Most of the world’s Cobalt is sourced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where even the government’s own conservative estimates suggest that 20% is extracted by 110,000-150,000 ‘artisanal miners’. This is an exceptionally generous term for backbreaking work with hand tools that is often carried out by children as young as seven years old.

Most of them aren’t provided with even basic protective gear, despite the fact that even minor exposure to Cobalt dust is known to cause dermatitis, asthma and a variety of other diseases. Prolonged and serious exposure to Cobalt dust often leads to a condition called Hard Metal Lung Disease, which can often prove fatal.

Corruption is rife

Many of the mining sites are unauthorized, but Amnesty International reported widescale corruption and government officials taking bribes to turn a blind eye.

So, although the Democratic Republic of Congo has an official policy in place to eradicate child labor, the reality of the situation is that the mines are basically unregulated. They are also highly-prized and that means that gangs are fighting over them and taking over rich seams of Cobalt with brutal force.

Accidents are a common occurrence and Radio Okapi reported at least 42 deaths in 2015 due to mines collapsing, fires and other industrial incidents. Some mines are so deep that the miners require Oxygen, but generators and pumps can fail and there are numerous reports of miners suffocating deep underground.

$2 a day for tortuous  work

Amnesty International talked to 90 people who worked at five mines in 2015. 17 of the workers were children and they described chronic working conditions. For their efforts, the children revealed they are paid less than $2 a day and a shift in the tunnels can be as long as 24 hours.

This study led Amnesty International and Afrewatch to produce a supply chain analysis of the Cobalt that is sourced from these artisanal mines. The trail led back to some of the world’s biggest names.

Cobalt Supply Chain Amnesty International

A lack of due diligence. Really?

Inevitably, Amnesty International has laid the blame at the door of the companies and tried to shame them into cleaning up their supply chain. It quoted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that requires companies to carry out due diligence “to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impact on human rights.”

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has laid out a clear five-step plan to trace mineral supply chains back to the source for this very purpose. It’s called the Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High Risk Areas, which sounds pretty clear…

The manufacturers themselves have argued that it is exceptionally complex to trace their minerals back to the source.  Amnesty International managed to do it with public records, investor statements and the companies’ websites, though. So this strikes us as a pretty poor attempt at damage limitation.

LG Chem took a more responsible approach and said in an official statement: “We are discussing whether there is a need for us to conduct our own inspection on the cobalt mining areas in Katanga, together with a 3rd party inspector.

“If the risk of human rights violations is confirmed to be very high and serious through the inspection, we will consider taking a wide range of effective actions to stop the violations, such as suspending or terminating business with those suppliers who procure cobalt from such mines.”

A human cost and an environmental one

It’s a damning report and shows that even the environmentally friendly option comes with a very real cost. This comes in addition to the ecological impact of Lithium and Nickel mining, which are both increasing exponentially as the global thirst for batteries increases.

Lithium mining uses toxic chemicals for leaching and is known to cause water depletion in areas that are already dry and arid enough for the metal to form in the first place.

More than half the world’s supply sits underneath the vast Bolivian salt flats, although there are significant reserves in Canada, and a major Lithium mine can devastate the surrounding area.

Nickel mining leaves vast amounts of rocks containing dangerous Sulfides, which produce Sulfuric Acid when combined with water and air.

What about recycling?

Recycling Lithium-Ion batteries at the end of their lifespan is also a major issue. Tesla has plans for a recycling center in the Sparks-based Gigafactory, but we will need to implement a serious plan for recycling batteries at the end of their working life. Right now, we just don’t have one and these minerals are simply too toxic to place in landfills in these numbers.

The best solution for society as a whole is to replace the Lithium-Ion battery and the arsenal of toxic chemicals with something much cleaner than Lithium, Nickel and  Cobalt. The brightest minds in the world are working on the next generation of batteries and there’s no doubt that less toxic metals would be a major plus.

Lithium-Ion batteries are much better for the environment than traditional petrol when they’re powering a car, but they still come with a cost.

This is a big bill for a cleaner world

Now Amnesty International’s report has proven that cost is human, as well as environmental, and that is simply unacceptable for an industry that is looking to replace the toxic mess that is the Internal Combustion Engine.

The EV industry is making astounding progress, but it also needs to learn these hard lessons. An environmental triumph built on the backs of Congolese children is a hollow victory indeed. So it’s time for the manufacturers to get their house, and their supply chain, in order.

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