Today there is lot of hype around climate change and this hype is not misplaced by any means. After all, earth is possibly the only planet where life exists and this planet is now at great risk. Dozens of countries, big corporations and environmental activists are coming up with many possible solutions to combat climate change. Reducing the use of plastics, cutting down on fossil fuel and using renewable energy are some of the top solutions; solutions that many environmental experts believe will help in overcoming the climate change problem.
But there is one particular solution that has caught everyone’s imagination. A solution that today has created a multi-billion dollar industry. I am talking about the electric vehicle industry. EV cars are being pitched as the best alternative to petrol & diesel cars, which are responsible for releasing huge amount of fossil fuel into our environment. Companies like Tesla and dozens of big auto-giants are today investing billions of dollars in the EV technology. These auto companies are promising a safer and greener future for the entire mankind. But this rosy future of a clean and green environment won’t be possible without paying a huge price. The EV industry that looks glittery and flashy from the outside is actually unleashing a massive human catastrophe. Deep beneath the shiny exterior of this multi-billion dollar industry lies the story of extreme human poverty, child labour and gross human right violations. This is the dark and evil side of the EV industry. Something that Tesla and no other auto companies will ever tell you. However, in this special show, we’ll unravel the dark side of the electric vehicle industry for our viewers.
We all know that electric vehicles run on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. It is eventually these lithium-ion batteries that will help in reducing our dependence on petrol and diesel. But do you know what really goes into making and manufacturing of these batteries. The answer is Cobalt. The greyish blue material whose demand has exploded over the years. Today almost all auto companies are in a race to get their hands over this material. Due to its excessive demand, today Cobalt is one of the most sought after minerals in the world.
Cobalt is found in several countries like Canada, China, Cuba, South Africa and United States. But there is one country where this material is found in huge abundance. In fact, this country holds 70% of the Cobalt reserve found in the world. This country is the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC.
DRC is the second largest country of the African continent. Despite being home to several rich minerals like blood diamond and cobalt, it is still one of the poorest countries in the world. With poverty and unemployment running rampant, the poor people in Congo will do anything to make a living. And today cobalt mining is one of the few means through which Congo people are desperately trying to survive.
In Congo, cobalt mining is done through two ways. First is the industrial, i.e. large scale mining and second is the small scale mining. It is the latter, i.e. small scale mining, that is notorious for brazenly abusing labour laws and safety protocols. Almost 20-30% of the country’s cobalt is mined in the small scale mines where almost 2,000,00 miners are employed. Out of these 2,000,00 miners, nearly 40,000 are estimated to be children, some of whom are as young as six year old.
These young innocent children put their lives at risk almost on daily basis so that they can make a living and survive for another day. They enter vertical tunnels that is sometime so narrow that it is almost impossible to pass through it. These young children work in these cobalt mines in the most inhumane and brutal conditions. Many a times they are not even provided with masks and gloves. What’s even more worse, sometimes they are provided with only 20 minutes of oxygen at a time. But despite these life threatening challenges, these children keep on digging. And once they get their hand at cobalt after relentless digging, they crash, wash and then finally take them to the nearest market for selling them. Now can you really imagine how much money these children make. Get ready for a shocker. Sometimes they make less than $1. Yes, after putting their life at risk, all they make is less than $1.
Today Cobalt mining may be a multi-dollar industry, which is estimated to reach worth $18 Bn by next five years. But all these astronomical money remains mostly stuck with big auto companies and few business tycoons. These money never reaches to that child in Congo who wages war against death so that he can live for another day. In a poverty ridden country like DRC, even a dollar is worth risking life for. And not surprisingly, many Congo citizens end up dying every year.
News network ABC recently interviewed a mother who lost her 13 year old son while working in a cobalt mine. Depressed by his family’s extreme poverty, he decided to go and work in a cobalt mine and earn some money for his poor family. But little did he know that this decision will end up costing his life.
According to a rough estimate, nearly 2,000 illegal miners die every year in poverty stricken Congo. In 2019, a single accident killed at least 43 miners in one go. Many DRC citizens also suffer from permanent lung damage, skin infection and other serious injuries due to cobalt mining.
Few Congolese families even decided to drag many auto companies including Tesla to court. They accused these auto companies of promoting child labour and pushing many to death and life threatening injuries. This lawsuit made a special reference about young Congolese kid called John Doe One. Since the young age, John had been working as a human mule, carrying tonnes of cobalt bags from cobalt mines to markets. He earned only $0.75 per day for doing this inhuman work.
On one fine day John accidentally fell into the Cobalt mine. Although his fellow workers immediately dragged him out and managed to save his life, the accident ended up permanently damaging his legs. Doctors later revealed that John’s legs have been paralyzed and he will never be able to walk again.
For millions of Congolese, cobalt is their only hope that can help them in escaping the abject poverty.
The booming EV industry that sold almost 6.5 Mn EV cars in 2021 is driving the huge demand for cobalt. Most industry experts claim that the total sales of EV cars is likely to touch 66 Mn cars by the year 2040. This means that the demand for cobalt is only going to increase in the coming decades. As per World Bank’s estimates, Cobalt’s demand will increase by whopping 600% by 2050. What does all these fact mean for Congolese people. It simply means that they will have more work to do at the cobalt mines and hope to escape their miserable poverty. But what it also means is that thousands of Congolese children will end up losing their lives and many will have to endure life-threatening injuries for rest of their lives. The future of children in Congo is indeed bleak. For most of them working in cobalt mines and risking their lives is not a matter of choice but necessity. A necessity that helps them and their families to live for another day.
Chinese connection & Global Cobalt Industry
There is also a deep Chinese connection to the global cobalt industry and the human catastrophe that it is unleashing. Today China controls more than half of the companies engaged in cobalt mining. The Asian giant alone produces nearly 70% of the cobalt found in the world, as per Mining.com. During last one decade or so, China has went onto acquire several American and European cobalt companies operating in DRC. As things stand today, China alone controls almost 15 out of 19 industrial cobalt mines in DRC.
This is yet another classic case of how China has reduced an underdeveloped and poor country into its financial colony. All because China wants complete control over the global cobalt production. With Congo almost fulfilling China’s wish, in return the Asian giant has promised better roads, schools and investment worth billions of dollar.
China had started investing in cobalt mines way back in 2010. Back then except for China, nobody had sensed that one day this mineral will become so precious and a sought after material. Today China’s bet is paying off quite handsomely as the EV industry is currently fuelling monumental demand for cobalt. With China now enjoying a complete monopoly over cobalt production, it is today in a position to control the global supply chain of the entire EV industry. This also means that the Asian giant is already enjoying lions share in a industry that is estimated to become a multi-billion dollar industry in the near future. And now think about this fact from the context of China’s ambition to become a super-power. And you’ll immediately realize why has China invested so heavily in cobalt mining.
However, in the process of fulfilling its super-power ambition, China is making the lives of millions of Congolese children into a living hell. Several media reports claim that in many Chinese controlled cobalt mines, labourers are abused, discriminated and beaten mercilessly. Sometimes they are even forced to worked without a contract. In case if some workers die, their corpses are secretly hidden in an attempt to cover up. Their families are later bribed for keeping their mouth shut.
But China alone cannot be hold responsible for inflicting inhuman atrocities against the DRC citizens. Big auto companies like Tesla, Volvo, Mercedes Benz, General Motors, Ford and Toyota are equally complicit in this crime. All these big companies source cobalt from Chinese controlled mines, which eventually helps them in manufacturing lithium-ion batteries that end up powering most of their electric vehicles. These lithium-ion batteries are nothing but ‘blood batteries,’ sucking blood and life out of the innocent Congolese children. In public, these auto companies may claim of having zero tolerance for child labour but they are obviously lying. Most of these auto companies are completely aware about the child abuse and rampant child labour taking place in Congo’s cobalt mines. But they choose to remain silent. These companies have been blinded by naked greed and blind hunger for profit.
In 2020, Tesla did announce that it will soon start using cobalt free lithium-ion batteries. But it later turned out that Elon Musk’s company wasn’t really serious about this decision. Shortly after making this announcement, Tesla reportedly signed an agreement with cobalt mining company, Glencore, for delivering 6,000 tonnes of cobalt per year.
Next time when you end up buying an expensive EV car and feel proud about it, do spare a few thoughts for the Congolese children. Who knows that EV car might have costed the life of a young kid in Congo or may have left a young Congo kid completely paralyzed for entire life.
Your EV cars and EV bikes are actually running on blood batteries. This is not climate solution, this is outright human abuse and human right violation. Today most EV companies are never tired of promising clean and green environment. But remember that their promise of a clean and green environment is actually stained with ‘blood.’