Cobalt -- a grey metal that was once best known for making bright blue pigment -- is now an essential component of lithium ion (Li) batteries. Li batteries provide robust, large-capacity rechargeable storage of electricity of wind and solar power and, notably, for electric vehicles (EVs). Batteries are the costliest component of an EV and everyone in the industry is working hard to bring these costs down to make the EVs more affordable and ensure higher sales.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the poorest and most politically unstable countries in the world, creating the perfect environment for cheap labour. The first reports about child labour in the cobalt mines in the DRC emerged several years ago. In December 2019, International Rights Advocates filed a lawsuit against Tesla, Apple, Dell, Microsoft and Alphabet for knowingly benefiting financially from child labour in the DRC. The suit was filed on behalf of 13 families whose children died or were seriously injured while mining for cobalt. The suit also seeks damages from miners Glencore and Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, which supply cobalt to large manufacturers of technology, including Tesla. Before the news of the lawsuit broke, a number of large carmakers formed what they are calling the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Network. Members include Volkswagen, Ford, Volvo and Fiat Chrysler. Glencore, which is a defendant in the International Rights Advocates case, is also a member of the network. Essentially, the network should enable car-makers and their cobalt suppliers to track the metal from the mine to the battery factory and ensure there was no child labour involved in mining it. The effectiveness of the network, however, only reaches as far as its members. If a mine joins it, the network would track the cobalt produced in it. Smaller mines, however, could still remain under the ethical radar and continue exploiting children.