Diamonds are not the only reason children are forced to labor in mines. Recent research on the new electric vehicles shines a light on the use of forced child labor in the former French Marxist region of Congo that lies in Central Africa between Angola and Gabon. Though Congo is rich in oil, cobalt, cobalt ore (heterogenite), copper, diamonds, gold, tin ore, tantalum ore (coltan), tungsten ore (wolframite), and more than 1100 more precious minerals and metals, the people of the country are poor and their children are often forced into atrocious mines that make use of child labor.
The United States Department of Labor reports that despite the availability of these mineral resources, the country is experiencing endemic poverty. Its people live with highly unstable conditions, and that children between the ages of 5 to 14 are forced to work in mines, exposed to all sorts of diseases and the possibility of accidental death, while the government and the mining companies that employ them look on in silence.
It seems the rest of the world is ignoring them too as the push for electric vehicles continues more children will be forced to work the mines. “The United States Department of Energy aims to integrate millions of zero-emission vehicles soon and the 2019 plan zeroes right in on cobalt, which the Energy Department has identified as a critical material that is at highest risk for supply chain issues.”
“Cobalt is one of the most common materials found in lithium-ion battery cathodes and plays an important role in stabilizing the cathode while the battery is in operation. The Democratic Republic of Congo supplies nearly 58% of the world’s cobalt and 80% of that supply goes to China. China is the world’s leading producer of refined cobalt and a leading supplier of cobalt imports to the United States. The mining practices in Congo have been of concern because of a lack of environmental safeguards, labor, health issues, and political uncertainty. These factors may limit the availability of cobalt to the supply chain and increase its demand, leading to rapid price increases in lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt is considered the highest material supply risk for EVs in the short- and medium-term,” Tina Casey summarized from the Department of Energy’s report.
There is a lot of money involved when it comes to producing batteries for the new electric vehicles and children’s rights activists have been pushing to eliminate cobalt from electric vehicle batteries. In an answer to the humanitarian crisis, the Energy Department claims that “considerable progress has been made along the road to a zero-cobalt battery”, but is that true? The Energy Department’s statement continues, “The first generation of lithium-ion batteries for consumer electronics contained cathodes with 60% cobalt. The first generation of EV batteries contained 33% cobalt in cathodes, while current commercial cathodes in EV batteries contain 15-20% cobalt, and the industry is actively developing 10% cobalt cathodes”.
The problems with the energy department’s claim that they are “actively developing batteries that use 10% cobalt cathodes” is that children are still forced to do the labor to get the cobalt and even at the 10% mark the plan is for more vehicles to use the batteries. More vehicles means more forced child labor and that the reduction to 10% cobalt does not actually give an accurate picture of how many children will be used in the future to mine high dollar metals.
The Energy Department’s plan also includes a $50 million round of funding for advanced battery research aimed at replacing cobalt and is shaping up in a way that pushes the use for nickel, iron, and aluminum cathodes. Cobalt is extracted from nickel and copper mining that takes advantage of children between the ages of 5 and 14 through the use of forced child labor! So how does that solve the problem?
Amnesty International says that at least 40,000 children work in inhumane conditions in the artisanal mining of cobalt in Congo alone. Diane BE reported to Humanium that “It is estimated that 40% of those working the Congo mines are less than 18 years old. They work without breaks and without any basic measures for protection or security. In unbearable heat, with clouds of red dust and weak light, these children dig at depths of 200 to 300 meters and are at constant risk of asphyxiation, rockslides, or other accidental deaths, for a remuneration of 1 to 2 dollars per day”. Small children that are usually less than seven years old are required to do the most dangerous mining jobs that adults are too big in size to do. There is little concern for a child’s life or safety in any mining operation.
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