‘Artisanal’ Child Labor Business Booming, Thanks to Electric Vehicle Renaissance

Child Labor

Electric cars have been praised as the future savior of mankind for quite some time now, but only in the last few years have mainstream automakers promised to drive headlong into EV production. Governments around the globe encourage the transition. The reality of battery production isn’t so clear-cut, however. Unless you make your daily commute in a Mack truck, odds are good that swapping to a sparkly new four-door with a lithium-ion battery isn’t going to be better for the environment.

Currently, it takes substantially more energy to produce an electric car than a conventional internal-combustion model. EVs sourcing their energy from fossil fuel-burning power plants aren’t much better for the environment than something that runs off pump gas. In addition to that, defunct batteries have to be recycled or they become environmental hazards — and no one has quite figured out the best way to do that yet.

There’s also the issue of sourcing the materials for those batteries. EV cells need scarce precious metals like nickel and cobalt. Those materials take a lot of energy to harvest and have, unfortunately, led to an increase in child labor rates in Africa. 

This all sounds really bad, but at least you can take some comfort in knowing that your EV will be better for the environment in the long run, right? If it gets the majority of its electricity from renewable resources and you drive it until the wheels fall off, it just might.

However, in most cases, it’ll be a lateral move, with pollution gains only occurring after 62,000 miles. According to a 2011 study from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, the total carbon footprint of a battery-powered car “is similar to that of a conventional car with a combustion engine, regardless of its size.”

Of course, that still doesn’t account for the aforementioned child labor. Bloomberg reports that cobalt production from so-called “artisanal” battery mines have risen by at least 50 percent last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Worse yet, state-owned miner Gecamines estimates the small-scale “artisanal” output accounted for as much as a quarter of the country’s total production of the metal in 2017.

Automakers must secure a steady supply of precious metals if “electric mobility” is to scale up as intended. While EV sales make up only a tiny fraction of most manufacturers’ volume, this could change in the coming years. Governments are aggressively pressing for the change and carmakers appear ready to follow through. But nobody is going to want to be associated with suppliers using unethical mining practices.

That said, it’s not as if the Congo has been particularly kind of children. Poverty is a serious problem for the county’s youth and having a job, even an extremely dangerous one, could be the difference between starving or not. It may also keep them from being roped into becoming child soldiers and further propagating what has become a cyclical tragedy within the country. But none of that makes the idea of putting them into harm’s way to mine scraps of metal for electric cars any easier to swallow.

At the very least, it could garner some seriously bad publicity for automakers building electric vehicles — many of which seem to have had their fill already. Apple and Microsoft received negative media attention after Amnesty International reported children were being sent down in Congolese mines to dig for cobalt destined for their products in 2016. The advocacy group said tunnel collapses killed dozens of workers in 2015, with many more likely to have gone unreported.

Unfortunately, it would be exceedingly difficult for any company to ensure its purchase of materials from the Congo is child labor-free. Cobalt from artisanal mines and large scale operations are frequently mixed together, then sold to a variety of small local distributors who then sell it to China. From there, it’s all smelted together and resold to battery manufacturers. While companies could simply sidestep the Congo supply chain, the vast majority of the precious metal is sourced from the region — and the small-scale mining operations that employ child labor are gaining ground on the bigger outfits.

Further complicating this already labyrinthian issue are questions as to whether enough long-term supplies of cobalt can be even established to support the shift toward electric vehicles. A 2017 report from Bailard Wealth Management alerted investors to the potential quagmire that was investing in cobalt. It even speculated that scrutiny surrounding the material may lead to cobalt being added to the list of conflict minerals regulated in the United States by the Dodd-Frank Act.

For now, cobalt demand is surging and will continue to grow so long as lithium-ion batteries are in demand. China has proposed a ban on the sale of cars using fossil fuel in the near future. The United Kingdom and France have both announced their intention to snuff out gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, with Germany currently discussing the legality of citywide bans. California Governor Jerry Brown has set a goal of putting 1.5 million clean-energy vehicles on California’s roads by 2025.

Even if policies stay put, automakers are already positioning themselves to press on with electric car production while the market decides if it’s ready.