child labour

DRC: Ethically produced batteries need industry-wide collaboration

By David Sturmes

Posted on January 27, 2022 08:15

Cobalt © Source: Fair Cobalt Alliance
Source: Fair Cobalt Alliance

Six years ago, Amnesty International shocked the world by exposing human rights abuses and child labour in the DRC. The report, titled ‘This is what we die for’ painted a grim picture of abuse, tragedy and hardship in the DRC’s artisanal cobalt mines.

The DRC, home to over half of the world’s reserves of cobalt, supplied 95,000 tonnes (almost 70% of global supply) in 2020. As much as 20% of this is produced by the country’s 110,000-150,000 artisanal and small-scale miners (ASM) of which 35,000 are thought to be children, based on estimates from 2017.

But the report hit home hard not just because practices like child labour are a grave issue in the DRC, but because it placed the issue squarely in our hands, our living rooms and our garages. Cobalt is a critical mineral used in the production of lithium-ion batteries found in almost all smartphones, tablets, laptops and electric vehicles.

Six years on and the situation has not really changed. Child labour and unacceptable working conditions in artisanal cobalt mines persist – this is the very real cost of powering our everyday lives. We all still have as much skin in this game as we did six years ago.

And now the rapid expansion of the electric vehicle market, as we move towards a green economy, is driving demand for cobalt from the DRC on a scale that was never anticipated. As it grows, solutions are time-critical. The demand must fuel positive changes that will enable sustainable growth, otherwise, we will face serious disruptions to battery supply chains that could derail our green ambitions.

Let’s consider our next steps. One approach is to disconnect – but let me put this to you: before reading on, switch off your phones, laptops, and tablets. There is an obvious flaw with that approach. You are almost certainly reading this on one of those devices.

Disconnecting is fast becoming impossible in today’s world. From personal and work communications, electric vehicles, and even entertainment and online shopping, our world is connected with the help of battery technology – cobalt is everywhere.

Since the establishment of the Fair Cobalt Alliance, we have been focused on addressing the underlying drivers of the issue. Working and living in Africa and having visited dozens of mines across the region, it is clear that child labour is not the result of bad parenting or the product of a single organisation’s malpractice. Child labour is the result of extreme poverty that afflicts large parts of the African continent.

I have seen teenagers descend into shafts running as much 100m deep with little to no protective gear or even a ladder, to return with 30kgs of ore strapped to their backs. I myself have climbed down some of these tunnels to experience these conditions. This was a truly terrifying and claustrophobic experience. I had difficulty carrying myself, and that was without a 30kg bag of ore. It is a difficult and dangerous environment for anyone. Mine collapses and loss of life are common – but it is desperation and poverty that drives young people into the mines – often for little more than a dollar or two a day.

The World Bank places poverty levels in the DRC at 73% – that’s 60 million people subsisting on less than $1.90 a day. Mining is a lifeblood for many communities suffering from severe economic deprivation. It provides an income and economic opportunities for people and a means for survival – not only does it pay more than other jobs, but in areas with large unskilled populations, the barriers to entry are low.

Fearing reputational harm, many of the big players in the value chain have adopted a policy of disengaging and suspending the purchase of cobalt from ASM or even the DRC at large. If the rest of the industry was to follow their example, this would have serious economic consequences for people living in extreme poverty in particular where mining is the only source of income.

Disconnecting is not an option, and neither is disengaging. This will only fuel the cycle of poverty and desperation. The issue facing us is a complex one, involving a large number of stakeholders across the cobalt value chain. Each has different business models, levels of exposure to the issue and pressure points.

For any approach to work its needs to bring together stakeholders and drive forward a coordinated response that is realistic and deliverable. This has underpinned our framework at the Fair Cobalt Alliance.

Governments must take a leading role in any supply chain initiative, and I am pleased to say that in the DRC the direction of travel is right. This year we expect to see the DRC form regulated buying and trading schemes that will help ensure increased transparency around the trade of artisanally mined materials and will help drive better standards in the mines.

I am also encouraged to see a broader conversation developing around beneficiation and onshoring battery production in the DRC – this will be a step-change in the country’s development, ensuring that much-needed revenues are not shipped abroad and that higher-skilled, better-paid jobs are created in-country.

Progress is being made but we are still facing a multi-faceted issue that needs pragmatic and tangible solutions. I propose that we turn the problem upside down – while ASM may be the challenge at the minute it is also the opportunity for a long-term solution.

Only by investing in creating the conditions we would all like to see on the ground can we radically change the situation in these mines and improve the lives of the very people enabling a global transition to a green, mineral-based economy.

We have an approach that works – but like any initiative, to move the dial we need to all work together. Simple steps that include access to capital and financial support in the ASM space, capacity building and the provision of ethical routes to market are already making a difference. Let’s turn the challenge into an opportunity – in another six years the world simply cannot afford for people to still be dying for this.

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