Just as miners are beginning to ramp up their focus on the climate impact of their operations, part of the solution to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is being called out for its heavy human impacts.
In mid-December at press time, a lawsuit was ﬁled in Washington, D.C., targeting a number of tech giants for their use of cobalt and their failure to ensure that child labour is not used in their supply chains.
Two big challenges collide in this story.
Cobalt is needed for the battery technologies the world needs to reduce the GHG emissions warming the globe. But the world’s main source of cobalt is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where child labour is entrenched in artisanal mining.
Filed by non-proﬁt group International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 families of children killed or maimed in the DRC’s cobalt mining industry, the lawsuit accuses tech giants Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Dell and Tesla of “knowingly beneﬁting from and providing substantial support” to the artisanal mining system in the DRC, knowing that is dependent on child labour.
The complaint paints a devastating portrait of poverty and exploitation, detailing the stories of children who lost limbs or their lives in mining accidents. Many of them worked as miners because their families could no longer afford the $6-per-month fees to send them to school.
According to a report by the World Economic Forum and Global Battery Alliance published in September 2019, 15- 30% of the DRC’s cobalt supply is extracted by hand using basic tools in artisanal mines. These mines are often informal and basic human rights are ignored. Work is done in dangerous conditions, for example in tunnels without proper supports that are prone to collapsing.
Amnesty International, in 2016, estimated that 20% of the DRC’s cobalt was mined by children.
So what are industry’s responsibilities when sourcing materials from a nation like the DRC, where poverty and corruption are endemic? Is it even possible to operate ethically in such circumstances?
Glencore and Eurasian Minerals Group, two major companies operating in DRC’s cobalt sector in addition to state-owned and Chinese-owned companies, have both attracted the attention of the UK’s Serious Fraud Ofﬁce, underlining those questions. Glencore is also being investigated by U.S. authorities and its Katanga Mining subsidiary has been fined $30 million by Canadian regulators.
In November, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Economic Development (OECD) provided guidance on responsible sourcing of cobalt and copper minerals from the DRC in its Interconnected supply chains report. The guidance to the DRC government, companies operating in the DRC and other stakeholders, includes an increased focus on corruption, money laundering and tax evasion risks, as well as strengthened engagement with the artisanal mining sector.
While climate change requires urgent action, this lawsuit – regardless of the outcome – adds urgency to the desperate situation of the poorest in the DRC, who can’t be forgotten in the global rush to adopt battery technology.