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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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The Human Cost of the EV Revolution


There’s a chance that the iPhone you’re about to get for Christmas contains cobalt mined by a six-year-old. There’s also a chance that that six-year-old has been killed or maimed in the processes of mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the lion’s share of the world’s cobalt comes from. 

Or, maybe, for those whose Christmas lists are more upscale, you’ll be driving around in a new Tesla next week, with a battery containing cobalt from that same mine. 

Our luxuries are necessarily someone else’s sacrifice – and sometimes that sacrifice is the ultimate one. 

The EV and electronics revolutions have come at a steep human cost: a boom in child labor in the DRC as child cobalt miners offer battery makers and Big Tech cheap labor.

That’s the focus of the first-ever lawsuit targeting giant tech firms as end-users of cobalt from mines in which young children have died. 

Having failed to bring down giant miners of cobalt in DRC, such as Glencore, this time lawyers are going after the end users themselves. 

The first reports about child labor in the cobalt mines in the DRC emerged several years ago. And while no one likes to hear that their Tesla, lithium battery, smartphone, or fitness tracker has cost a child his health—or worse, his life—this is the reality of cobalt mining today.

This week, International Rights Advocates filed a lawsuit against Tesla, Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and Alphabet for knowingly benefiting financially from child labor in the DRC. 

The suit was filed on behalf of 13 families whose children died or were seriously injured while mining for cobalt. The suit also seeks damages from miners Glencore and Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, which supply cobalt to the tech majors and to Tesla.

The DRC is home to 3.4 million tons of cobalt: a grey metal that was once used for making bright blue pigment. Now, cobalt is an essential component of lithium ion batteries. This 3.4 million tons is more than half of all the cobalt in the world.

Related: US Proved Oil & Gas Reserves Hit New Record High

The second-largest cobalt reserves are found in Australia, at 1.2 million tons.

The DRC is also one of the poorest and most politically unstable countries in the world, creating the perfect environment for cheap labor—and even cheaper child labor. With many analysts pegging cobalt to soon slip into a shortage, cheap labor is a crucial advantage—an advantage that has trumped ethics, at least until the media shone a light on the human cost of the EV/Big Tech revolutions.

Carmakers were quick to react, pre-empting a more targeted attack from the media and human rights organizations. Earlier this week, before the news of the lawsuit against Tesla broke, a number of large carmakers formed what they are calling the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Network. Members include Volkswagen, Ford, Volvo and, the most recent addition, Fiat Chrysler. Interestingly enough, Glencore, which is a defendant in the International Rights Advocates case, is also a member of the network.

"The Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Network is going to help us focus on the problems and give us enough visibility, which we could not do in the past," according to Sai Yadati from IBM, which will power the blockchain network.

Essentially, the network should enable carmakers and their cobalt suppliers to track the metal from the mine to the battery factory and ensure there was no child labor involved in mining it.

The effectiveness of the network, however, only reaches as far as its members. If a mine joins it, the network would track the cobalt produced in it. Smaller mines, however, could still remain under the ethical radar and continue exploiting children. 

In a further effort to distance themselves from the child labor stigma, some carmakers are investing in educational and farming initiatives in the DRC, to provide an alternative to working in the cobalt mines that so often results in death or serious maiming. However, what is moral is often unprofitable, which is how Big Tech and Tesla ended up in court.

Related: Lukoil: Russia’s Output Could Surpass 12 Million Bpd By 2035

One logical question to ask in the context of cobalt mining is: why keep getting it from DRC when there are reserves elsewhere? Well, because it is cheap and abundant there. Miner wages in Australia—which has the second-largest cobalt reserves—are probably light years away from miner wages in the DRC, where one child laborer who Fortune interviewed last year said he made $9 “on good days”.

Taking care to source your cobalt ethically is certainly the right thing to do for carmakers who plan to transform into EV makers in the future. Yet it is also the more expensive thing to do. Carmakers need the cobalt for EV batteries. Batteries are already the costliest component of an EV, and everyone in the industry is working hard to bring these costs down to make the EVs more affordable and ensure higher sales. Ethical mining is unlikely to bring these costs down: health and safety standards carry their own costs. This, in turn, may compromise future profits.

Of course, there is no question that the ethical sourcing of cobalt or any other battery raw material for that matter is more important than profits. Yet this only holds true from a human, moral perspective. Businesses are not humans and they tend to be motivated by factors other than basic human morality. It will be wonderful to see a responsible car industry that foregoes much of its profits to ensure no children are laboring in the cobalt mines of the DRC. What we may actually see is a car industry scared into foregoing much of its EV profits to ensure it doesn’t end up in court on child labor aiding and abetting charges. In either case, carmakers may have to prepare for higher-for-longer prices for their batteries.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Bill Jack on December 22 2019 said:
    More Cobalt is used in oil refining than anything else.
  • Jason Patrick on December 22 2019 said:
    The raw material needs to be certified from a approved mine. if it is not certified it will not get into your phone or EV. Check the facts before writing a story.
  • Jason Patrick on December 22 2019 said:
    The raw material needs to be certified from a approved mine. if it is not certified it will not get into your phone or EV. Check the facts before writing a story.
  • Steve Spot on December 22 2019 said:
    What about the Cobalt that is used in the Oil industry - where does that come from?

    Used in the desulpherisation process as a catalyst.

    The use of cobalt in desulphurisation reactions of oil products represents the highest tonnage of cobalt use in the catalyst sector.
  • Jane Bain on December 22 2019 said:
    So, where is Canada in all of this with regards to our oil? What is wrong with the federal gvernment and a few of the provinces? There should be pipelines to tranport the natural resource that we have in abundance to other parts of the world!
  • Jay T on December 22 2019 said:
    And why is it that those children are working in the cobalt mines? All we need do is look in the mirror. Many don't remember that Congo had a leader who actually wanted to work with the US and others to transform Congolese society, Patrice Lumumba. But the western countries led by the US and Belgium had him assassinated. Instead of having a situation where Congo is one of the most developed countries in Africa while providing not only raw materials but developed products to the companies all over the world, we have desperate people living day to day, forced to work in mines for their survival. Even today, we have the US overthrowing the duly elected government of Evo Morales helped by western governments along with lackeys in South America principally because they didn't want to sell their lithium reserves on the cheap but to refine it themselves and create the value added products such as batteries within the country. So please stop with the BS virtue signalling. If you want to really write about THE PROBLEM, then write about how this symptom of child labour will continue to exist as long we do nothing while our governments overthrow democratically elected governments in order to exploit their resources and populations for their own self benefit.
  • Brendon M on December 22 2019 said:
    While the whole child labour thing is bad it's hardly caused by electric vehicles as the headline makes out. To begin with cobalt is not an "essential component of lithium ion batteries" and most lithium battery manufacturers have either reduced the need for cobalt or set to remove it entirely from the mix. Also no mention of the fact that more cobalt is used by the fossil fuel industry rather than EVs.
    I agree that something needs to be done but this is not an EV problem this is a society and world poverty problem. If we didn't need the cobalt then the children will just be forced to mine something else. Helping to bring the people of DRC out of poverty will save a lot more lives then if we stopped using cobalt tomorrow.
  • Tilakkumar Manubhai Amin on January 10 2020 said:
    Most of the cobalt is used for rechargeable batteries so the author is right on relating the DRC cobalt mining problem and use of EV.

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