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Exploitation of Workers in DR Congo Taints Electric Vehicles

By Arthur Svensson - Industri Energi, November 8, 2021

The acceleration of electrical vehicles (EV) production is crucial for the transition to a low-carbon economy, yet it appears to be linked to serious labour rights abuses. New research released today reveals dire conditions, discrimination and extremely low pay at some of the world’s largest industrial cobalt mines operated by multinational mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is considered an essential mineral in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles. Over 70% of the world’s cobalt is extracted in Congo.

Cobalt is everywhere. It is a silvery-blue mineral used in the rechargeable batteries that power our mobile phones, laptops and tablets, and in larger quantities, the electric vehicles that will soon dominate our roads. It is a strategic mineral in the plan to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Accelerating this switch is one of the priorities to tackle the climate crisis and industry experts forecast that electric vehicle sales will skyrocket in the next 10 years. This will require a dramatic increase in cobalt production. The booming demand for cobalt has a dark side, however.

The 87-page report"The Road to Ruin? Electric vehicles and workers’ rights abuses at Congo’s industrial cobalt mines” by by corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), and Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialised in labour rights, exposes a system of widespread exploitation. Congolese workers at five industrial mines in Congo where cobalt is produced: Kamoto Copper Company (KCC), Metalkol RTR, Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM), Sino-Congolaise des Mines (Sicomines) and Société Minière de Deziwa (Somidez) were interviewed for the research. They said they received very low pay and were subjected to excessive working hours, degrading treatment, violence, discrimination, racism, unsafe working conditions, and a disregard for even basic health provision.

Some workers described being kicked, slapped, beaten with sticks, insulted, shouted at, or pulled around by their ears. Others reported severe discrimination and abuse at Chinese-operated mines. One worker said, “Our situation is worse than before. The Chinese come and impose their standards and culture. They don’t treat Congolese well. This is new colonisation.”

The Road to Ruin? - Electric vehicles and workers’ rights abuses at DR Congo’s industrial cobalt mines

By staff - Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), November 2021

Cobalt is everywhere. It is a silvery-blue mineral used in the rechargeable batteries that power our mobile phones, laptops and tablets, and in larger quantities, the electric vehicles that will soon dominate our roads. It is a strategic mineral in the plan to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Accelerating this switch is one of the priorities to tackle the climate crisis and industry experts forecast that electric vehicle sales will skyrocket in the next 10 years. This will require a dramatic increase in cobalt production.

The booming demand for cobalt has a dark side, however. The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s poorest nations, holds the lion’s share of the world’s cobalt reserves. In 2020, 70% of the world’s cobalt was extracted from within its borders with tens of thousands of workers labouring in large-scale industrial mines to dig up the ore. Multinational mining companies that own many of Congo’s mines, eager to demonstrate their “green” and “responsible” credentials, say they produce “clean” and “sustainable” cobalt, free from human rights abuses, and that their operations contribute to good jobs and economic opportunities.

This report, based on extensive research over two years, paints a very different picture. It shows dire conditions for many Congolese workers in the industrial mines, often characterised by widespread exploitation and labour rights abuses. Many workers do not earn a “living wage” – the minimum remuneration to afford a decent standard of living – have little or no health provision, and far too often are subjected to excessive working hours, unsafe working conditions, degrading treatment, discrimination and racism.

In recent years attention has mainly focused on Congo’s artisanal mining sector, partly because of the risks of child labour it creates, whereas the conditions for workers in the large-scale industrial mines have gone largely unnoticed. This report examines workers’ rights at Congo’s industrial mines where the large majority of cobalt is coming from, producing some 80% of the cobalt exported from the country (in contrast to the 20% produced in artisanal mines).

The findings presented in this report are based on detailed research over 28 months by UK-based corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico- Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialised in labour rights. The research team carried out extensive field research in and around Kolwezi, a mining town where many of Congo’s cobalt and copper mines are located. It is informed by 130 interviews of workers and former workers at five mining companies, as well as interviews with subcontractors, union representatives, lawyers, Congolese local authorities, medical staff and industry experts.

Read the text (PDF).

Mining and Green New Deals

By Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz - The Ecologist, August 4, 2021

Mining that destroys communities and the ecosystem can have no part in any Green New Deal.

The recent mainstreaming of the Green New Deal framework has intensified scrutiny on oil majors.

However, the same cannot be said of global extractivist power - especially mining companies, who see the climate crisis as an opportunity to reinvent themselves and guarantee their bottom line. 

Supported by the World Bank, the mining industry has cynically positioned itself as key actors in the energy transition, claiming they are needed to provide the minerals and metals to meet growing renewable energy demand.

This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.

Batteries

Yet, many of these same companies are heavily invested in fossil fuel extractors, and are among the world’s highest corporate emitters.

The mining industry, along with other extractive industries, has been at the heart of a colonial model which continues to bring profits to multinational corporations and the wealthy few, while dispossessing countless communities of their lands, water and livelihoods and exploiting workers at the expense of their health and well-being.

Miners are also amongst the most mistreated workers in the world.

In July 2019, at least 43 artisanal miners died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), due to a mine collapse at an industrial copper and cobalt mine owned by Anglo-Swiss multinational Glencore - cobalt is a vital part of electric car batteries.

Protest

UNICEF estimates that 40,000 children work in mining across the south of the DRC. Meanwhile, Glencore sees itself as part of the energy transition powering the electric vehicle revolution.

During the pandemic, multiple governments declared mining an essential activity, or responded to industry pressure to do so after a brief shutdown.

Mining operations became vectors of the disease - for workers and rural communities.

As companies profiteered from the pandemic, threats to land defenders exercising legitimate protest increased, and the regulatory groundwork was laid to reposition and bolster extractivist industries.

Industrial Consumption: A largely invisible yet decisive underlying cause of the crisis

By Justiça Ambiental! and WoMIN - World Rainforest Movement, July 9, 2021

Industrial consumption is an intrinsic aspect of capitalist’s logic of increasing accumulation. It is also an underlying cause of the current crisis, which is being reinforced by initiatives promoting a ‘green’ label for the same production chains. This article highlights the voices of Justiça Ambiental! in Mozambique and the African ecofeminist alliance WoMIN.

This article highlights the voices of two organizations: Justiça Ambiental! (JA!) in Mozambique, which is accompanying the struggles in Cabo Delgado against the extraction of offshore and inland gas deposits; and WoMIN, an African ecofeminist alliance that works with movements of women and communities impacted by mining activities.

The world is in the midst of a serious and manifold crisis, one that brings together concerns over environmental devastation, climate chaos, loss of biological diversity, large-scale deforestation, social inequality, food insecurity, increasing poverty levels, and the concentration of power and land into fewer hands. And the list could go on and on. Industrial consumption is a vital aspect of what is driving this crisis, that is, an underlying cause. These are causes that operate on a global scale and consist of economic, political and social components that influence each other.

It is important to remark that the term industrial consumption should be understood not as the individual act of consuming, but rather as a consequence of the systemic logic of the capitalist economy of ever increasing accumulation. That means that each company, in order to make more profits, needs to grow and, in many cases, produce more and promote bigger and new markets for expansion; but to produce more, a company also needs to consume more resources (particularly energy, land and water).

Massive amounts of energy, from different sources, are distributed to industries to feed their production chains. Thousands of hectares of fertile land are turned into cash crops for industrial purposes. Mines and industrial plantations around the world siphon off and pollute enormous amounts of already scarce water sources. (1) Land is increasingly under the control of fewer individuals. Each day, enormous quantities of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and fertilizers are produced and used by tree plantation companies and other agribusiness sectors. Minerals and fossil fuels continue to be extracted and transported across the globe via long and frequently militarized corridors of pipelines, waterways and roads. Ports, airports, highways and storage units are constantly being built and expanded to facilitate faster and cheaper connections between industries and markets. And so on. This systemic logic of ever-increasing production and consumption reinforces, at the same time, models of structural oppression, racism and patriarchy.

Industrial consumption, by and large, is now being reinforced by official and corporate initiatives trying to promote a new ‘green’ label for the same economic model. The targets set by companies and governments to reduce pollution, deforestation and biodiversity loss are mostly presented next to economic packages endorsing economic growth, free trade and globalized capitalism. And what does this mean? Basically, more industrial consumption and production. Likewise, the so-called ‘green’ or ‘low carbon’ economy is being promoted alongside market-based policies that pretend to offset the pollution and destruction that is intrinsic to such an economic model. In a nutshell, the so-called ‘transition’ aims to maintain and allow the same economic model that is actually driving the crisis to continue uninterrupted.

Renewable energies and ‘green hydrogen’: Renewing destruction?

By Joanna Cabello - World Rainforest Movement, July 9, 2021

Industrial-scale renewable energy infrastructure has seen a revival in the agenda of the ‘energy transition’ and as part of the economic recovery plans in front of the pandemic. Besides, the production of so-called ‘green hydrogen’ from these projects adds another layer of injustices. The energy matrix and over consumption remain untouched.

In a 2020 statement from the International Hydropower Association, the world’s largest hydropower corporations are calling on governments for “fast-track planning approvals” to ensure new large dams construction can commence as soon as possible. (1) The hydro energy industry is also lobbying to make sure large dams are seen as essential to the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and to “the transition to net-zero carbon economies” (2), casting devastating projects as both ‘clean’ and central to a ‘green energy transition’.

Industrial-scale renewable energy, including hydro, wind and solar, is positioned as a solution to our ever-increasing energy consumption. On top of this, the production of the so-called ‘green hydrogen,’ adds another layer of injustices related to this mega infrastructure. Yet, the replacement of the energy source by no means addresses the real problem posed by the excessive levels of energy consumption, which are driven by accumulative economic growth. This also leaves unchallenged the violence intrinsic to the societies that such energy powers. (3)

Many corporate and state actors are pushing for increasing their capacity to produce and use hydrogen as part of the ‘green’ recovery plans from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. It is becoming central in the ‘green transition’ debates. The German government has announced plans to spend 9 billion euros (UD10.7 billion dollars) supporting its domestic hydrogen industry. (4) Likewise, the European Commission has started to promote hydrogen as a way of cutting carbon emissions and reaching its Green Deal climate targets. The EU plans to scale up ‘renewable hydrogen’ projects and invest a cumulative amount of 470 billion euros (US740 billion dollars) by 2050. (5) Moreover, US Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, said that hydrogen “will help decarbonize high-polluting heavy-duty and industrial sectors [in the United States] (…) and realizing a net-zero economy by 2050.” (6)

Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries

By Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello, et. al. - Earthworks, March 31, 2021

It is critical that the clean energy economy not repeat the mistakes of the dirty fossil fuel economy that it is seeking to replace. The pivot from internal combustion engines towards electric vehicles provides an unprecedented opportunity to develop a shared commitment to responsible mineral sourcing. We can accelerate the renewable energy transition and drive improvements in the social and environmental performance of the mining industry by reducing overall demand for new minerals, increasing mineral recycling and reuse, and ensuring that mining only takes place if it meets high environmental, human rights and social standards.

This report is designed to inform downstream battery metal users of key environmental, social, and governance issues associated with the extraction and processing of the three battery metals of principal concern for the development of electric vehicles and low-carbon energy infrastructure—lithium, cobalt and nickel—and to offer guidance on responsible minerals sourcing practices. This report reflects and summarizes some of the key concerns of communities impacted by current and proposed mineral extraction in hotspots around the world: Argentina, Chile and the United States for lithium, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Russia for nickel, and the Democratic Republic of Congo for cobalt.

Read the text (PDF).

A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals

By Andy Whitmore - War on Want, March 2021

There is an urgent need to deal with the potential widespread destruction and human rights abuses that could be unleashed by the extraction of transition minerals: the materials needed at high volumes for the production of renewable energy technologies. Although it is crucial to tackle the climate crisis, and rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, this transition cannot be achieved by expanding our reliance on other materials. The voices arguing for ‘digging our way out of the climate crisis’, particularly those that make up the global mining industry, are powerful but self-serving and must be rejected. We need carefully planned, lowcarbon and non-resource-intensive solutions for people and planet.

Academics, communities and organisations have labelled this new mining frontier, ‘green extractivism’: the idea that human rights and ecosystems can be sacrificed to mining in the name of “solving” climate change, while at the same time mining companies profit from an unjust, arbitrary and volatile transition. There are multiple environmental, social, governance and human rights concerns associated with this expansion, and threats to communities on the frontlines of conflicts arising from mining for transition minerals are set to increase in the future. However, these threats are happening now. From the deserts of Argentina to the forests of West Papua, impacted communities are resisting the rise of ‘green extractivism’ everywhere it is occurring. They embody the many ways we need to transform our energy-intense societies to ones based on democratic and fair access to the essential elements for a dignified life. We must act in solidarity with impacted communities across the globe.

This report includes in-depth studies written by frontline organisations in Indonesia and Philippines directly resisting nickel mining in both countries respectively. These exclusive case studies highlight the threats, potential impacts and worrying trends associated with nickel mining and illustrate, in detail, the landscape for mining expansion in the region.

Read the text (PDF).

Lithium, Batteries and Climate Change: The transition to green energy does not have to be powered by destructive and poisonous mineral extraction

By Jonathan Neale - Climate and Capitalism, February 11, 2021

I have spent the last year working on a book called Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. Most of it is about both the politics and the engineering of any possible transition that can avert catastrophic climate breakdown. One thing I had to think about long and hard was lithium and car batteries.

I often hear people say that we can’t cover the world with electric vehicles, because there simply is not enough lithium for batteries. In any case, they add, lithium production is toxic, and the only supplies are in the Global South. Moreover, so the story goes, there are not enough rare earth metals for wind turbines and all the other hardware we will need for renewable energy.

People often smile after they say those things, which is hard for me to understand, because it means eight billion people will go to hell.

So I went and found out about lithium batteries and the uses of rare earth. What I found out is that the transition will be possible, but neither the politics nor the engineering is simple. This article explains why. I start by describing the situation simply, and then add in some of the complexity.

Lithium is a metal used in almost all electric vehicle batteries today. About half of global production of lithium currently goes to electric vehicles. And in future we will need to increase the production of electric vehicles from hundreds or thousands to hundreds of millions. That will require vast amounts of lithium.

There are three ways to mine lithium. It can be extracted from rock. It can be extracted from the brine that is left over when sea water passes through a desalination plant. Or it can be extracted from those brine deposits which are particularly rich in lithium. These brine deposits are the common way of mining lithium currently, because it is by far the cheapest. Most of the known deposits of lithium rich brine are in the arid highlands where Bolivia, Chile and Argentina come together.

Lithium mining is well established in Chile and Argentina. In both countries the local indigenous people have organized against the mining, but so far been unable to stop it. The mining is toxic, because large amounts of acid are used in the processing. But the mining also uses large amounts of water in places that already has little enough moisture. The result is that ancestral homelands become unlivable.

Bolivia may have even richer deposits of lithium than Argentina and Chile, but mining has not begun there. The Bolivian government had been led by the indigenous socialist Evo Morales from 2006 to 2019. Morales had been propelled to power by a mass movement committed to taking back control of Bolivia’s water, gas and oil resources from multinational corporations. Morales was unable to nationalize the corporations, but he did insist on the government getting a much larger share of the oil and gas revenue.[1]

His government planned to go even further with lithium. Morales wanted to mine the lithium in Bolivia, but he wanted to build factories alongside the mines to make batteries. In a world increasingly hungry for batteries, that could have turned Bolivia into an industrial nation, not just a place to exploit resources.

The Morales government, however, was unable to raise the necessary investment funds. Global capital, Tesla, the big banks and the World Bank had no intention of supporting such a project. And if they had, they would not have done so in conjunction with a socialist like Morales. Then, in 2019, a coup led by Bolivian capitalists, and supported by the United States, removed Morales. Widespread popular unrest forced a new election in October. Morales’ party, the Movement for Socialism won, though Morales himself was out of the running. It is unclear what will happen to the lithium.

That’s one level of complexity. The local indigenous people did not want the lithium mined. The socialist government did not want extractavism, but they did want industrial development.

Those are not the only choices.

For one thing, there are other, more expensive ways of mining lithium. It can be mined from hard rock in China or the United States. More important, batteries do not have to be made out of lithium. Cars had used batteries for almost a century before Sony developed a commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991. Engineers in many universities are experimenting with a range of other materials for building batteries. But even without looking to the future, it would be possible to build batteries in the ways they used to be built. Indeed, in January 2020, the US Geological Service listed the metals that could be substituted for lithium in battery anodes as calcium, magnesium, mercury and zinc.[2]

The reason all manufacturers currently use lithium is that it provides a lighter battery that lasts longer. That gives the car greater range without recharging, and it make possible a much lighter car. In other words, lithium batteries are cheaper.

Taking the High Road: Strategies for a Fair EV Future

By staff - UAW Research Department, January 2020

The American automotive industry is constantly evolving and, throughout the union’s history, the United Auto Workers (UAW) has fought to ensure industry changes result in quality jobs that benefit workers and the economy.

The auto industry is facing a new shift in technology with the proliferation of electric vehicles (EVs). This shift is an opportunity to re-invest in U.S. manufacturing. But this opportunity will be lost if EVs or their components are imported or made by low-road suppliers who underpay workers. In order to preserve American jobs and work standards, what is needed is a proactive industrial policy that creates high-quality manufacturing jobs making EVs and their components.

Read the text (PDF).

Green Conflict Minerals: The fuels of conflict in the transition to a low-carbon economy

By Clare Church and Alec Crawford - International Institute for Sustainable Development, August 2018

The mining sector will play a key role in the transition toward a low-carbon future.

The technologies required to facilitate this shift, including wind turbines, solar panels and improved energy storage, all require significant mineral and metal inputs and, absent any dramatic technological advances or an increase in the use of recycled materials, these inputs will come from the mining sector. How they are sourced will determine whether this transition supports peaceful, sustainable development in the countries where strategic reserves are found or reinforces weak governance and exacerbates local tensions and grievances.

Through extensive desk-based research, a mapping analysis, stakeholder consultations, case studies and an examination of existing mineral supply chain governance mechanisms, this report seeks to understand how the transition to a low-carbon economy—and the minerals and metals required to make that shift—could affect fragility, conflict and violence dynamics in mineral-rich states.

For the minerals required to make the transition to a low-carbon economy, there are real risks of grievances, tensions and conflicts emerging or continuing around their extraction. In order to meet global goals around sustainable development and climate change mitigation, while contributing to lasting peace, the supply chains of these strategic minerals must be governed in a way that is responsible, accountable and transparent.

Read the report (Link).

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