Peugeot, Renault, Tesla, Volkswagen and Volvo share two conspicuous things in common. One, is they are car manufacturers who command a large share of the global market. And the second, which may be little unknown to the common driver, is their reliance on cobalt to manufacture the vehicles that have made their brands household names.
Cobalt is an essential mineral used for batteries in electric cars, computers, and cell phones. Demand for cobalt is increasing as more electric cars are sold, particularly in Europe, where governments are encouraging the sales with generous environmental bonuses. According to recent projections by the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance, the demand for cobalt for use in batteries will grow fourfold in 2030 as a result of this electric vehicle boom.
For the past four years, the average cost of cobalt was higher than the cost of all the other battery metals such as magnesium, aluminum and iron put together. The price of cobalt has also historically been very volatile. Part of this volatility is because cobalt is usually produced as a byproduct of nickel and copper mining, and therefore tied to the demand and price fluctuations of those metals.
The mining and refining of cobalt is also geographically limited, with more than 70% of the world’s cobalt produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“For mass electrification to happen, there are lots of sentiments that cobalt needs to be eliminated or reduced to the bare minimum,” says Chibueze Amanchukwu, professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago.
There are little if any success stories in Congo. The mining of cobalt has not helped millions of Congolese who languish in poverty. In fact, cobalt has become tainted with human rights abuses involving the exploitation of artisanal and small scale miners, who produce 15-30% of Congo’s overall cobalt produce.
“The majority of the world’s battery-grade cobalt reserves are located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the the mining of cobalt is associated with human rights abuses and child labor,” says Sam Adham, a senior powertrain research analyst at LMC Automotive.
An investigation carried out by the Guardian with support from Humanity United uncovered many stories of the harsh and dangerous working conditions endured by miners, such as child labor or miners being buried alive as tunnels cave in. However, these aren’t new allegations. In recent years, western technology and automotive brands have been crafting ways to source what they call “clean” cobalt, which doesn’t harbor the baggage of human rights abuses similar to that of blood diamonds in Sierra Leone in the early 2000s.
One worker named Pierre told the Guardian that he receives a basic wage of about $3.50 a day, but if he works through lunch and puts in hours of overtime, can make up to $5. The lunch he is offered is just two small bread rolls and a carton of juice.
“The salary is very, very small. It gives me a headache … The mine makes so much and we make so little,” he says.
If he takes a day off, he says money is deducted from his wages. If he is sick and misses more than two days in a month, more money is cut. “You can’t even argue. If you do, you’ll be fired,” he says, squatting on the dirt floor of the bare brick shack he rents.
“The relationship between us and the [mine] is like a slave and a master,” says Pierre.
Despite its abundant natural resources, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) ranks near the bottom in various human and economic development indicators and its average income is about 40% of its value at independence in 1960. There have been signs of renaissance in recent years, but with an ongoing conflict in its Eastern provinces, progress remains elusive.
The challenge then is on car and battery manufacturers to instill systematic procedures to an industry that could overturn DR Congo’s woes in a blink of an eye. Whether they will do it at the behest of eking out more profit remains to be seen.