'Artisanal' Child Labor Business Booming, Thanks to Electric Vehicle Renaissance

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
8216 artisanal child labor business booming thanks to electric vehicle renaissance

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.

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  • Doublechili Doublechili on Feb 21, 2018

    I am always amazed/annoyed at certain food stores when I buy a single small item and they put it in a huge paper bag (sometimes double-bagged) rather than a smaller/lighter plastic bag. Depending on the circumstances*, an EV can be like that big paper bag with one item in it. *Icelanders, on the other hand, should drive nothing but EVs.

    • Redmondjp Redmondjp on Feb 21, 2018

      What about the massive cardboard box that Amazon sends you, filled with 27 seal-choking plastic air pillows, along with your tiny item? Jeff Bezos is singularly responsible for more packaging pollution than any other person on the planet.

  • Testacles Megalos Testacles Megalos on Feb 21, 2018

    I don't think this discussion matters much at all. Since the industrial revolution humans have been exponentially using up resources in the interest of speed. Faster production, faster travel, etc.... amplify human effort by the input of energy via resource consumption. Efficiency being less than complete there will always be anticipatable byproducts (even if we don't actually do so); and there will be unanticipated byproducts (did Henry Ford even dream of the socioeconomic impact on cities by highway construction?). ICE vs. electric vs whatever - - - ultimately it makes no difference. This all slows down only if people start to walk instead of drive, pay more for their energy and food, and ultimately limit consumption. All the rest of this conversation is just rearranging the deck chairs....

    • See 1 previous
    • Doublechili Doublechili on Feb 21, 2018

      The conversation is about the extent to which EVs are more feel-good than actually environmentally-positive. However, the only real answer is technology. Yeah, EVs may be feel-good now, but eventually as efficiencies improve and more electricity is generated by renewable sources, they'll be great. Or maybe they'll be replaced by some newer, better technology. The point is, most people are not going to go for the "do less" solution. Yeah, you could sit down on a compost heap and run an icicle through your heart. It's the most environmentally sensitive thing you can do, but it's not much fun. And short of that, most people are not going to grow their own food, shiver in the winter, never go anywhere, etc.. If civilization is going to advance and lessen impact, technology is the way to go. So intermediate steps are not merely rearranging deck chairs.

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion: https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/thoreau/civil.html
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?