It is an explosive topic that is circulating around lithium batteries installed in e-cars. Should people buy cars of this type to protect the environment in Western countries, or should they not do so for ethical reasons? It seems almost bizarre. To protect children in German cities from nitrogen oxides, children elsewhere in the world have to slave for it. But why is mined cobalt such a problem? For the rich West, the raw material means a reduction in CO2 emissions and thus protection of the climate. However, the protection of children at work is missing. And not only in the case of e-cars, but many other electrical appliances.
COBALT – THE LITHIUM BATTERY METAL OF THE INDUSTRIAL NATION
Cobalt is a shiny, silvery metal that has played an important role in industry for some time, whether it’s in alloys, dyes, hard metals or magnets. If you want to live in an urban setting and stay caught up with the latest electronics, you can’t get around it. Countless industrial products from various sectors contain this metal. Among others, combustion engines, electric motors, gas turbines or guitar strings use it, too.
Mixed with other materials, it is mainly used in the production of lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt is a so-called cathode material, i.e. an electrode that absorbs electrons and thus ensures energy generation in the battery. When woven into the battery, the cobalt is used to charge smartphones, vacuum cleaners, and the like.
It has long been clear that the mining of cobalt is up for debate. But until now it was mainly the “evil” electric cars that caused an uproar among the western population. People who didn’t drive an electric car felt that the “child labor problem” in mining was just a “car problem”. But, what most don’t consider is that any mobile device can contain cobalt. Thus, the issue is a cross-device problem.
If you buy electrical appliances, no matter what kind, this means that child labour is involved in many cases, especially as the supply chains are not always traceable.
SURVIVING INSTEAD OF LIVING
The story about the role of child labour in relation to lithium batteries and cobalt is a convoluted and lengthy one. Early on, Chinese corporate giants bought up land to industrially mine the cobalt. The result has been an increase in unemployment and poverty within Congo, despite the abundance of raw materials.
Since the families have few prospects elsewhere, hunger drives them to mine cobalt illegally, and often together with their children. Parents cannot pay for the expensive school fees, leaving children forced to help out at a young age and to support themselves in the course of the mining. Therefore, the children’s work in these areas is also on hold.
According to reports, tons upon tons of material is extracted in Congo through such mining methods. Their reward is an even lower wage than is paid to adults, with more effort and a greater risk to the children’s lives. And still families prefer mining over death or a life in poverty, as the earnings are more than in agriculture. So the choice between work and schooling is an easy one for parents.
DIGGING HOLES IN THE LIVING ROOM FOR SURVIVAL
To the public, it seems that mining cobalt means simply digging something up. But it is far more than picking up a spade. It’s a life’s work that destroys many lives as well as your own land. Indeed, most small-scale miners do not dig on vacant land, but out of necessity often in their own residential land or in illegal places. People are literally digging holes in their own living rooms, and doing so for pennies. And this is not an isolated case. More than half of the world’s known cobalt ore deposits come from Congo. Many are mined by industry under standards. But that doesn’t help the local inhabitants. They, too, have to survive and are literally plunging into unregulated mining cooperatives.
The holes for digging are up to 45 meters deep and are crossed with partly unstable underground labyrinths. Children and parents work at all times without mouth guards and are barefoot. The mined ores are then carried to nearby streams to be washed and sorted, which in turn pollutes the drinking water and makes it unusable.
The floors are very fragile and the work is treacherous – both washing and dismantling. There are accidents every day. People are buried alive under masses of earth. Those who survive inhale vast quantities of toxic cobalt dust and die prematurely of lung disease.
The deeper the shafts, the narrower they also become. This is exactly where child labor comes into play – similar to the mining of mica. Seven-year-olds search for metal underground. Minors work up to 12 hours on average for a wage of one to two dollars.
Mines can easily collapse in landslides, and flooding is common when it rains. There are hardly any safety measures and many children work without sturdy shoes or helmets. The inhaled dust is unrelenting and leads to embolisms, death or years of health problems without medical care. What happens to them is the mines is simply dismissed. It is a sacrifice that must be made for the good of the family to survive. Since doctors, as well as school fees, are too expensive, wounds are treated with dirty rags or poorly sterilized cloths until the wound becomes infected and the child is unable to work or dies. In the case of landslides, there is the threat of immediate death.
Those who survive have to go back to work every day. Digging tunnels. By hand. Without equipment or with rusty shovels, broken glass, or rubbish they find on the street. The children often spend all day and night in the “tunnels” they have built. They are dug so deep that it is difficult to get out again. The organization UNICEF even estimates that within one year about 40,000 boys and girls have to work in mines in the south of the republic.
MINING ALSO CREATES AGRICULTURAL PROBLEMS
Not only is the mining itself harmful, but the mining of cobalt also indirectly promotes environmental damage and thus health consequences. Mining contaminates soil, air and water in many places. Farmland can no longer be watered with the polluted water. Plants die. Toxins can get into the food through the soil, as the water used is highly toxic.
LACK OF SAFEGUARDS AND SANCTIONS
As with any illegal predatory mining operation, there is a lack of safety regulations on the part of the state, regional representation, and laws that are stricter. There is little monitoring of whether workers are of legal age and more than half of the children without public protection.
Companies have already launched initial projects to improve working conditions and prevent child labour. Some car manufacturers even completely renounce cobalt, especially from the Congo region.
However, it is a very fine line, especially since you cannot completely eliminate mining. On the one hand, because the natural supply accounts for half. On the other hand, as with the mining of cocoa, bananas and co., taking away the little money they have earned could lead to an economic catastrophe for millions of people.
BETTER: ENSURE FAIR COBALT
A better way to go here is for auto and electric appliance makers and battery manufacturers to make sure they buy fair cobalt. Customers should also keep this in mind. A Fairtrade label, similar to food, can certainly be very helpful here. The battery regulation within the EU could also set another important guard rail.
The ITRI Tin Supply Chain Initiative also relies on multi-stage sealing, so that it can be ensured as far as possible that the minerals come from conflict-free regions and are not mined using child labour. To this end, local appraisers are appointed to verify that a mine meets these specific criteria. The final results from this fair supply chain are then filled into specially marked bags and only re-opened under the supervision of another appraiser. In this way, a “clean” origin of the raw materials can be proven and guaranteed along the entire supply chain. Although there is still a risk of smuggling, it would be a first step to also be able to guarantee child labor-free cobalt. For industry, this would be easy to implement. However, new jobs would then have to be created for locals, as otherwise they would slip even further into poverty.
Pressure on Chinese suppliers can also be increased. European companies should use their power to actively improve the living conditions of children in Congo. Because so far, the big money from the automotive countries has hardly reached the people in the Central African country.
Even completely cobalt-free cars are possible. Recently, sodium-ion batteries were presented that do not require the expensive raw materials cobalt, lithium, copper and nickel. From 2023 on, these should already be installed en masse.
Translated by Emily Schiffer
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