Child labour is the real price of going green
Children working in cobalt mines in the DRC are the labour behind our ‘environmentally friendly’ electric cars
When we celebrate scientific innovations, do we flip them over and look at the underbelly?
Not often enough.
Last week, while mindlessly flicking through channels on DStv, I came across footage of a tiny boy in stumbling over the muddy top-layer of a mine carrying a sack on his back.
A few seconds later I saw another child – dirty and dusty from labour – being slapped on the head by a man three times his size.
I was horrified and wanted to change channels but I was also transfixed, and within a few seconds I realised what I was watching: a CNN expose on how cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo are using labour forces made up of children so young they could just as easily be lying in bed with a teddy bear or sitting behind a school desk learning the 101 of mathematics.
Nima Elbagir, a CNN correspondent, and her team went into the central African country to find out what was happening on the ground in a country that lies on top of half of the world’s entire cobalt supply.
We cannot just write this off as a problem in the DRC as we are the end-users of the products that use cobalt.
This much-sought-after element is used in the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in our everyday products like cellphones and laptops.
According to the documentary, the demand for cobalt has literally quadrupled over the past two years, and “production at so-called artisanal mines in the DRC rose by 18%” in 2017 alone.
Now this is where the sickening irony comes in: one of the major factors pushing up the demand for cobalt so exponentially in recent times is the proliferation of the electric car industry.
Just for a moment, contrast in your mind the image of a small child carrying heavy sacks across a dirty mine for hours on end with the image of a self-satisfied customer who touts him or herself as being “conscious” and “green” because of driving an electric vehicle.
Of course many of the leaders in DRC turn a blind eye – it is a major source of revenue for the country.
But that is just part of the problem.A much bigger problem is that everyone along the entire supply chain is also turning a blind eye, so that by the time you’re sitting pretty with your electric vehicle, nobody has a clue what the journey of the cobalt has been.
Most worrying is that the supply chain is so complex – with cobalt from these small mines being mixed in with cobalt from other mines – that manufacturers are not only turning a blind eye, they’re claiming that it’s impossible for them to know exactly how the cobalt they use was extracted.
But behind the curtain of this complicated supply chain and the convenience of not knowing the details are labour practices not very different from what this same country experienced with rubber during the scramble for Africa.
The Washington Post also did an investigation into cobalt recently and found that workers’ conditions were harsh and dangerous, and that around “100,000 cobalt miners in the Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures”, that “deaths and injuries are common”, and that the mining activity had exposed local communities to “levels of toxic metals” linked to breathing problems and birth defects.
This brings to mind, once again, the cruel irony that Naomi Klein highlighted in her book No Logo which came out in 1999.
Klein described in her riveting way how, from around the 1980s, corporations twigged onto the fact that manufacturing was actually far less important than marketing. Suddenly, by branding products and associating them with certain lifestyles, they sold like hotcakes.
At the same time, factories in the first world closed en masse only to re-emerge under multinationals that had set up (sweat) shop in third world countries where people were earning a pittance to stitch together Nikes that were selling for an absolute fortune back in the first world.
Soon, the largest expenditure was on branding not manufacturing.
An interview with Klein in The Guardian 18 years ago has an eerie resonance with the cobalt mines in the DRC today.“Exploitation of workers in sweatshops is bad enough, but when big corporations are promoting a lifestyle, it is all the more horrendous that the ‘lifestyle’ of production, behind the branding curtain, is no life at all. And perhaps the canniest corporate technique is the appropriation of politically aware language,” the piece reads.
Just swap “sweatshops” for cobalt mines, and then consider that today’s “politically aware language” is often about eco-consciousness.
So behind every advert about green living and the righteousness of owning an electric vehicle, is a small child working his fingers to the bone to provide the cobalt for that car.
Is the answer to go back to fossil fuels, and petrol-driven cars?
The answer is firmer pressure on companies to truly map their supply chain, and on government officials to put their foot down and regulate this lucrative re-scramble for Africa so that the well-being of its youngest citizens is not under threat.