Last week, Elon Musk announced that Tesla plans to manufacture 20 million electric-powered vehicles by 2030. His bold growth target dovetails with California Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement that he will propose that his state require all new cars and trucks to be non-gasoline powered by 2035. The impetus is clear: Global warming is threatening our planet, and a rapid and dramatic reduction in carbon emissions is essential. Battery-powered vehicles are the most promising alternative, but for the foreseeable future, they depend on cobalt, a mineral found primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where child labor and unsafe mining conditions are common. The U.S. Department of Labor has documented the nature and scope of the cobalt problem in the DRC. The department’s most recent global report on child labor concludes that “in 2019, the DRC made no advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.” Research conducted by the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) indicates that government labor inspectors in the DRC “failed to conduct any worksite inspections for the fourth year in a row.” The report includes a focus on children working in cobalt and copper mines in the DRC and especially in so-called artisanal and small-scale mines (ASM). Often located within larger, more formal mining sites, ASM sites are populated by small-scale subsistence miners not officially employed by the mining companies who gather minerals and typically sell them to middlemen on open markets. It is estimated that 15% to 30% of cobalt from the DRC comes from ASM sites. These miners routinely bring their children to the sites, in part because they have no child-care, local schools are either inaccessible or woefully overcrowded, or because they desperately need additional family income. At the mines, each child is given a burlap bag and instructed to gather small pieces of cobalt by hand. Though the estimates of children working in these mines vary widely, the DOL report cites one estimate that “as many as 35,000 of the DRC's 255,000 artisanal cobalt miners are children.” It concludes that these “informal or illegal ASM operations [are] leaving children uniquely exposed to hazardous working conditions and, in some instances, forced labor.”
In a report published last month by the World Economic Forum, Dorothee Baumann-Pauly, a colleague of mine at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, describes current conditions at three large mining sites. Based on her visit to the DRC last fall, the report makes a series of thoughtful and practical recommendations. First, it calls on companies that rely on cobalt to power their products to acknowledge their reliance on DRC-mined cobalt and the attendant risks and responsibilities. More than 70% of all cobalt mining globally takes place in the DRC, and most of the known reserves are there as well. If companies intend to source cobalt from the DRC, they need to commit to addressing child labor and mine safety as business priorities.
Baumann-Pauly urges companies to help formalize artisanal mining activities and establish a robust monitoring system at the mine sites. This will help ensure that children don’t gain access to the mines and encourage local authorities to provide them access to decent schools. Within the mines a formalized process will help to establish safety standards and a system to apply them—measures, for example, that would limit the depth of pits and provide protective equipment. In her report, Baumann-Pauly, who also directs the new Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights at the University of Geneva, cites as an example a formalization pilot project at Mutoshi overseen by Trafigura, a large Swiss-based commodity trading firm that has a significant commercial presence in the DRC. Trafigura helped Baumann-Pauly gain access to that mine, and she sees it as offering some insight into how this might work in practice.
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Michael Posner is a Professor of Business and Society and Director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.