Climate action is the new buzzword. And why wouldn’t it be, one world is all we have and our world is at risk. Countries, Corporates, and Citizens claim to be doing all they can to save the planet from climate change. Green energy is being floated as one of the top solutions. We are replacing coal with hydropower, fossil fuels with solar energy, petrol, and diesel cars with electric vehicles.
Electric vehicles or EVs are being pitched as a cleaner, greener, and sustainable, but are they?
What’s clean for the environment may not really be clean. Hidden beneath the shiny exteriors of an EV is a story of blood batteries. These cars drive human rights violations, extreme poverty, and child labor.
Electric cars run on batteries, you know that. But do you know what these batteries are made of? Rare metals like Lithium and Cobalt. The cobalt gives the battery stability and allows it to operate safely. It’s a bluish gray-colored metal found in the earth’s crust, also called crustal rocks. Cobalt has several like in jet turbine generators, tool materials, pigments, and smartphone batteries but its major use is lithium-ion batteries.
Half of the cobalt produced goes into electric cars. It needs 4 to 30 kilos of cobalt to manufacture a single car battery. This metal is found all over the world like in Australia, China, Canada, Cuba, South Africa, the USA, Philippines, but 70% of the total supply comes from one country, Congo.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the second-largest country in Africa having a GDP of around 49 billion dollars. Congo is synonymous with conflict, poverty, and corruption. Beneath the country’s red earth is the world’s largest deposit of cobalt. The population of the country is 92 million and some 2 million people depend on cobalt production.
Cobalt mining in Congo is divided into two categories; industrial or large-scale mining and artisanal or small-scale mining.
Artisanal mines are unregulated, and labor laws do not apply here nor do safety protocols. These mines produce 20 to 30% of Congo’s cobalt where over 2,00,000 miners work in these mines and at least 40,000 of them are children, some as young as six. These children flirt with death daily, sometimes they enter vertical tunnels that most of them are too narrow for adults to enter. Inside it’s like a furnace. The children dig for cobalt under inhuman conditions, sometimes they have shovels but mostly they dig with their bare hands with no masks, no gloves, no work clothes, and sometimes just 20 minutes’ worth of oxygen.
The process and its cost
These young miners go on for hours, after digging they crush the rocks, wash them, and carry their fines to the market to find a buyer. But how much do these children make? Sometimes, their soft hands barely make as little as 1 dollar!
Cobalt is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is estimated to be worth 13.63 billion dollars by 2027 but this money never reaches a child who is spotting and extracting the metal. In poverty-stricken Congo, even a dollar is worth risking one’s life where many die trying to make this money.
ABC News recently profiled a woman who lost her 13 years old son to a mine-related accident. He told his mother he was going to the market to buy coal for her so that she could cook, instead the boy went to a cobalt mine to try and earn an extra buck for the house. The mine embankment collapsed, and the 13-year-old never returned home.
Between 2014 and 2015, at least 80 artisanal miners died in Congo. In 2019, an accident killed 43 miners. According to one estimate, 2000 illegal miners die in Congo every year. Many suffer permanent lung damage, skin infection and life-changing injuries.
Green-tech car is miles away
In 2019, some families from Congo filed a lawsuit, they named companies like Tesla, accusing them of aiding and abetting in the death and injury of children. The lawsuit spoke about a child, he was referred to as John Doe 1. John has been working as a human mule since the age of 9. He would carry bags after bags of cobalt just for 0.75 dollars a day. One day John fell into a tunnel, and fellow workers dragged him out of it but they left John on the ground. When the child’s parents found out about the accident they rushed to the mining site but it was too late, John was paralyzed. Doctors said, “he will never be able to walk again.”
The biggest car manufacturers are complicit in these crimes. Companies like Tesla, Volvo, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen, all source cobalt from Chinese mines in Congo. Sure they claim to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to child labor but they too know that there is no way to fully map their supply chains.
One worker told the media, “people are dying for lack of safety. If a worker dies [the Chinese] don’t report it to the government. They bury the person, hiding the corpse…and bribe the family to keep quiet.”
That’s your electric car killing people even before it hits the road.