Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

blogs images.forbes.com jamesconca files 2018 09 Cobalt metal
Cobalt is a grey metal that is essential to our new technological world. It is a preferred component in lithium-ion batteries that power laptops, cell phones, and electric vehicles. These exploding applications are causing the use of Co to skyrocket.Alchemist-hp

Vivienne Walt and Sebastian Meyer wrote a piercing analysis in Fortune on the conditions surrounding Co supply from the world’s largest supplier of the metal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

The reason this is so important is that many of the people who support the new energy technological revolution of non-fossil fuels, renewables and new nuclear SMRs, electric vehicles, conservation and efficiency, also care about the social issues that many of these technologies incorporate in their wake - corruption, environmental pollution, extreme poverty and child labor.

And the supply of Co is the perfect intersection of these two issues.

With support from the Pulitzer Center, Walt and Meyer focused on the lives of the poor laborers in this former Belgian colony, especially children, and how their exploitation is making our lives easier.

Especially one child named Lukasa who gets up at 5 AM to work a 12-hour day for less than $9, hacking at ore by hand and carrying it on his back to a trading post an hour trek from the mine, before starting his two-hour walk back home.

It is essential that Walt's work, and others like her, be reported throughout the developed world. The tech revolution is supposed to make all of our lives better, not just the lucky few.

Walt describes how the multibillion-dollar industry, that has made some people outside Africa really really rich, is not known to workers like Lukasa. He just sells his haul to Chinese traders who have seen their profits increase 400% over the last two years.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Republic of Congo is pervaded by conflict, poverty and corruption. The country’s economy is completely dependent on mining. Many poor families are completely dependent on their children working the mines. That $9/day is hard for a child to reject.

Competing jobs pay even less, and there are few of those.

Our tech revolution needs new battery technologies and various other physicochemical applications whose special characteristics require relatively rare metals like lithium (Li) and cobalt (Co) compared to iron, copper and aluminum. Cobalt provides a stability and high energy density that allows batteries to operate safely and for longer periods.

In the brave new energy world of the not-so-distant future, battery storage is thought to make possible boundless clean energy and convenient technologies like fully electric vehicles and multiple hand-held devices, even though batteries are not particularly cost-effective relative to larger storage methods such as pumped hydro or compressed air.

But for small devices, and even automobiles, it is essential.

At present, the world’s energy-storage capacity is overwhelmingly dominated by pumped hydro, over 96%, followed distantly by electro-chemical (including batteries) at 1.5%, thermal also at 1.5% and electro-mechanical at only 0.8%. The pressure for new battery technologies is enormous.

So, you care about carbon emissions, but you also care about global poverty and the desertification of large areas that it causes. Same with working conditions. Child miners are not the image sought after by people at the coffee shop surfing the internet for free-range eggs on their iPhones.

Unfortunately, the demand for Co is increasing like a bacteria culture in a petri dish, and poor children are its food.

Cobalt, a bluish-gray metal found in crustal rocks, has many uses in modern society. Cobalt is mined all over the world, but over half of the global Co supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Besides batteries, the metal is used in magnetic steels, high-speed cutting tools, and in alloys used in jet turbines and gas turbine generators. For thousands of years Co was used as a pigment to get rich blue colors as well as violet and green, and is used in modern dyes and in electroplating because of its appearance, hardness, and resistance to corrosion. Co is also made radioactive for use in medicine, particularly to treat cancer and as a biological tracer.

But batteries are the major sink for the metal. Last year batteries scarfed up over half of the Co produced, and that share will only increase in the coming years.

According to Walt, Congolese officials are not the only ones at fault. Western tech giants like Tesla, Apple, GM, Samsung and BMW consciously ignored the problems surrounding child labor and corruption because consumers didn't seem to care and just wanted the latest devices as fast as possible. Co is a preferred component in lithium-ion batteries that power laptops, cell phones, and electric vehicles, and these exploding applications are causing the use of Co to skyrocket.

In 2016, Amnesty International issued a blistering report naming more than two dozen electronics and automotive companies that had failed to ensure their cobalt supply chains didn’t include child labor at these types of mines.

Just like blood diamonds and the garment industry’s child sweatshops, it takes time and the shining of light on these practices before the Western public starts to care. Charles Dickens succeeded 200 years ago in England with coal, but poverty keeps it alive everywhere there’s poor and something worth exploiting.

The United Nations estimates that 250 million children, ages 5 to 14, work in developing countries - 61% in Asia, 32% in Africa and 7% in Latin America. Many of these children are forced to work. They are denied an education and a normal childhood.

But that may be changing. Reporting from Walt and others have forced companies to view this as a threat to their brand’s value. Tyler Gillard, senior legal adviser to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, helped draft guidelines for corporations on mineral supply chains. He recently posed the question to Fortune, “Are consumers going to demand child-labor-free, corruption-free electric vehicles? I think it is coming.”

Walt reports that China’s Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals & Chemicals Importers & Exporters launched the Responsible Cobalt Initiative last year, to bring companies together, including Apple, Samsung, HP and Sony, that agree to follow the OECD's rules to eliminate child labor from their supply chains. Apple has begun a program to switch children from mining to new moneymaking skills. Today, about 100 teenagers are being taught sewing, cell phone repair, hairdressing, carpentry, catering, and other skills in villages around Kolwezi.

For now, these efforts are small, but hopefully they will encourage a ground-swell in humane mining practices.

With Co revenue projected to increase five-fold in the next several years, the industry can certainly afford it.

Article from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2018/09/26/blood-batteries-cobalt-and-the-congo/#25c663accc6e