The Flip Side Of Lithium-ion Batteries: Child Labor, Exploitation And Uprooted Communities

The extension of lithium ion batteries to mobile phones or electric vehicles  is a powerful bet to move towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly models. However, the increase in their demand entails risks: child labor, exploitation and the expulsion of rural communities from their lands appear on that list that intervenes, to cloud them, in the potential advantages associated with these batteries.

If there’s one thing lithium-ion batteries can’t do without, it’s cobalt. To obtain it, multinationals must look to the South, where the main reserves of this mineral are concentrated. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile are among the main sources of cobalt, among which the Democratic Republic of the Congo stands out, with half of the world’s reserves.

But this is not the only reason why the African country stands out. Another is the percentage of children between the ages of 5 and 14 who are forced to work : 15% according to UNICEF data. With a mix of official mines and artisanal mines operating under their own rules, the reality of miners in the Congo is expected to exceed these percentages. Thus, after the cobalt used in industrialized countries to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, the other end of the chain is marked by situations of child exploitation, slavery and challenges to the health and safety of those who work in the mines. In most of them, labor rights simply do not exist.

Discovering that a multinational is using minerals extracted under similar conditions is a violation of the most basic human rights.

In addition to the potential legal implications this may have, operating mines that subject workers to dire conditions has a powerful impact on the brand that uses them and on the very benefits of using lithium-ion batteries in general.

Many experts and third sector organizations therefore demand that technology or automobile companies guarantee the traceability of cobalt throughout the entire chain, also from the mine itself. With this, situations such as those occurring in the Congo, or others that are being denounced from the Latin American Southern Cone, would be discovered and could be avoided.

The forecast that the demand for cobalt will only grow exponentially in the coming years has meant that in Latin American countries like Argentina, small indigenous communities are being pressured to abandon their lands, or to stay on them, but resigning. to water, to meet the water resources needs of the mining industry.

If you want to know more about the working conditions in cobalt mines, you can find information and videos on investigations like this one from Sky News.

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