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

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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.

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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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.

  • Dave M. The Outback alternates between decent design and goofy design every generation. 2005 was attractive, 2010 goofy. 2015 decent. 2020 good, but the ‘23 refresh hideous.Looking forward to the Outback hybrid in ‘26…..
  • Lorenzo Subaru had the ideal wagon - in 1995. The Legacy Outback was a straight two-box design with rear quarter and back windows you could see out of, and was available in brown with a 5-speed manual, as God and TTAC commenters intended. It's nice they're not raising prices, but when you've lost the plot, does it matter?
  • Bkojote Remember a month a go when Cleveland wanted to create a more walkable Cleveland and TTAC's 'BIG GOVERNMENT IS THE PROBLEM' dumbest and dullest all collectively crapped their diapers? Here's the thing- look on any American highway and it's littered with people who don't /want/ to be driving or shouldn't be. Look at every Becky on her phone during the morning commute in her Tucson, look at every Brad aggro driving his 84 month loan GMC. Hell look how many drivers nowadays can't even operate a headlight switch. You expect these people to understand a stoplight? In my neighborhood alone 4 people have been rear ended at lights from someone on their phone. Distracted driving over the past 10 years has spiked, and it's only going to get worse unless Becky has an alternative, because no judge is going to pull her license when 'she needs it to get to work!' but heaven forbid she not check fb/tiktok for 40 minutes a day.
  • Scott Shouldn't the The Italian Minister for Business be criticizing The Milano for being too ugly to be Italian?Better use of resources doing that....
  • Steve Biro Frankly, while I can do without Eyesight and automatic start-stop, there is generally less B-S with Subarus in terms of design, utility and off-road chops than with many other brands. I just hope that when they adopt Toyota’s hybrid system, they’ll also use Toyota’s eCVT.