Rare Earth Metals and Car Makers

Electric Vehicles – The Prius We Have To Pay

Group 52

Outlawing the sales of diesel and gasoline cars is one initiative designed to reduce air pollution levels and meet the conditions set out in the Paris agreement to reduce global emissions. Electric cars are expected to takeover, but currently account for less than 1% of global vehicle sales. So, the solution is simple: we need to buy more electric cars to effectively combat climate change, but what knock-on effects does this bring?

Most electric vehicles use lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries and these batteries contain cobalt. More than half the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where children as young as seven are working in perilous conditions to mine this metal.

Is this the most ethical way to combat climate change? Should we continue with the exploitation of child labour to meet the demands of a greener future? Whose responsibility is it to cease this affair? Or is there an understanding that things are fine the way they are?

The greater good?

Why does cobalt mining still continue to this day? Basically, cobalt is a very popular and almost essential mineral because it is used in virtually all batteries in common devices, including cell phones, laptops and electric vehicles. Let’s take some ethical frameworks into consideration that defend the use of child labour for cobalt mining in the DRC.

Utilitarianism suggests that by not extracting this precious material, the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people would not be achieved, as we would be forced back into relying on fossil fuels and pollution levels would continue to rise. This negatively affects all life on this planet, along with all future life. Thus, without cobalt mining, we are back to square one, with no large-scale solution to combat climate change.

Further to this, children working is a necessity for some families to survive in the DRC. Imagine being in a situation where our loved ones depended on the little income that we could provide. Arthur worked as a child miner from the young age of 9. When speaking to Amnesty International, he said I worked in the mines because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for food and clothes for me. Papa is unemployed, and mama sells charcoal. Without the current and increasing global demand for cobalt, what would this family’s future bring?

Now, let’s examine cobalt mining in the DRC from a business standpoint. ‘Conflict minerals’ are minerals mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, and which are sold or traded by armed groups. There are UK and EU legislations that regulate their extraction and sale. Companies trading minerals in the DRC are ‘encouraged’ to be socially, economically and environmentally responsible, however, cobalt is not defined as a conflict mineral in the DRC. So, if governing bodies do not feel that cobalt is being exploited, then why should multinational companies regulate its acquisition? Furthermore, in 2016, Amnesty International found that no country legally requires firms to publicly report their cobalt supply chains – allowing multinationals easy deniability. Thus, nothing illegal is actually taking place amongst any corporate stakeholders.

No way it Congo on!

How are you reading this? On your smartphone? On your laptop? Have you ever used a hybrid vehicle? For most the answer is yes, and as such, we are all an accessory to child exploitation.

Child Labour MinerKant expressed that we shouldn’t allow others to act in a way we wouldn’t act ourselves. Would a child living in a more economically developed country want to mine for as little as $1 per day? It is unlikely. Why should a child in the DRC be any different? Let’s put something into context, $1 per day in the DRC doesn’t even buy you a pint of milk. The risks of lung disease and dermatitis, along with grueling 12-hour shifts don’t even begin to explain the extent of the trauma that these children experience. Charity workers who have seen the conditions first hand explain that “the working conditions in the Congolese mines are miserable, many children are often physically ruined as a result.’’ Needless to say, this should not be commonplace.

Intuitionism states that our gut feeling or impulse determines whether an action is right or wrong. This, along with common sense, tells us that child exploitation cannot continue.

Perhaps it is the role of the technological overlords like Apple and Samsung to scrutinise the social impacts within their supply chain. In a step forward, Apple is planning to cut-out the middleman by purchasing directly from miners, whilst Samsung are looking to recycle existing Li-ion batteries to fight the surging cobalt prices (12) (13). Unfortunately, these positive actions can only go so far, due to the sobering fact that alternative locations cannot supply the large quantities needed, despite Tesla securing its own fully ethical source in North America. (Shout out to Elon!) Remember, more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the DRC.

Instead, should the responsibility lie on engineers to produce alternative designs that don’t contain cobalt? Is the topic a governmental issue? Or should we be demanding that multinationals change their ways?

Suggested approach:

Perhaps the most well-rounded approach would be that these companies invest more in the DRC and provide fair pay and proper working conditions. This would only seem reasonable considering the huge profits that are made from products containing cobalt. As mentioned above, legally, there is no requirement to monitor the way in which cobalt is obtained, and more people are gaining rather than suffering as a result of the mining. That said, some form of moral compass should indicate that the current method is socially negligent, insensitive and unsustainable.

Further Comments:

For further details, watch this video which neatly explains this discussion in more detail.

Let us know what you think. Comment below.

32 thoughts on “Electric Vehicles – The Prius We Have To Pay

  1. I believe that the locals to the mine are not seeing fair compensation for the extraction of the cobalt, whether that is due to the contractor not paying a reasonable price or vendor not reinvesting the money into the local area. If the money was reinvested, improving infrastructure and creating more jobs, parents could more readily earn a income capable of supporting the family thereby eliminating the need for child labour.

    The argument you provide based on intuitionism is particularly powerful, it is undeniable that the child exploitation feels wrong.

    To answer the question posed at the end of your article: it seems to me that the most logical and efficient way to deal with such a problem would be for governments to work and communicate with multinationals in order to fund the development of more ethical technologies and/or provide aid and support in the form of infrastructure investment to the area surround the mines where cobalt is a necessity.

    Great article, well done!

    1. “The argument you provide based on intuitionism is particularly powerful, it is undeniable that the child exploitation feels wrong. ”

      My thoughts too. It resonated with me.

      1. Intuitionism, unfortunately, may not resonate with those at the top of the corporate food chain.

        I’m sure intuitionism would ‘hit home’ a lot harder if we sent some of these CEO’s to visit the mines in the DRC.

        This sounds harsh of course, remembering that Elon Musk is securing more ethical mining locations. Let’s hope that others follow suit.

    2. Thank you for your detailed response. Excuse my long reply.

      I think you are exactly right, this money needs to be reinvested into the local area. Better jobs with increased wages would mean that parents could support the entire family and the children could go to school and do what they should be doing at that age!

      I enjoyed reading your answer to the final question posed in the article, particularly the funding of more ethical technologies! There are certainly more than one ways to help reduce the social effects of mining this cobalt and I had not considered that one.

      The main thing stopping multinationals from investigating new concepts and technologies is that they can predict the profits/losses involved in such an exploration. The likelihood is that there is a technology out there somewhere that could help with this issue, but it will not get used until it becomes profitable! With government backing, could these ‘hidden’ technologies rise to the surface and reduce dependency on cobalt??

    3. Dear the Helpful Yak

      Thank you for your comment, it is much appreciated.

      I believe that a governmental change is required for this problem to be solved. The amount of corruption in the country is huge and for the children to be stop being exploited an overhaul of the system will be needed.

      Th multinationals should also do more, as you say, to invest in organisations which take children from work and into schools.

  2. The argument against “No way it Congo on!” is very passionate, and I agree with it, but is there an additional ethical argument against it as well as Kant’s theory? Virtue Ethics, for example.

    In the course textbook, the case about IKEA and child labour is interesting (pages 104 and 105 in my copy) and has parallels here.

    Personally, I feel very sorry for Arthur and his compatriots. In the 21st century we really should be capable of being so much more civilised to each other. However, we also need to recognise that violent change, no matter how well intentioned, may not achieve the effects we want.

    What’s better? Arthur in a mine or Arthur as a child soldier? Neither option is lovely, I admit.

    It’s a very good article. Thank you. I am ashamed that I didn’t know about this issue beforehand.

    1. Thank you for your feedback and praise, Dr. Smith.

      I will be looking into virtue ethics and the IKEA-child labour case. (I imagine there are an endless list of ethical problems that exist in the world that could all have parallels with cases such as these!)

      I feel sorry for Arthur, too. I think you’re right by recognising that changes to this community may not bring about the changes that we originally desired. How can we guarantee that Arthur has good enough education locally to ensure that he never has to do work like this again? How can we ensure that he doesn’t end up as a soldier fighting against his will? All we can do is try and do enough to improve his situation right now and provide the best possible start in his life. Mining cobalt for 12 hours per day is certainly not the best start in life for a child.

    2. I too felt shame when researching and constructing this article. It is unforgivable in that with the resources at our disposal that Arthur and many others should have to go through such pain and suffering. The DRC is a very complicated and sad place right now with tribal war and corruption within the government. I do agree that stopping child labour may not mean a better outcome for these children.

      I believe that for positive change to happen a number of things must occur. Firstly, more education to the general public with what is happening. Secondly, a complete overhaul of the government in the DRC. And lastly, more responsibility and action from the multinational companies who buy the cobalt.

      What do you think? I think most of what I have stated is unlikely to happen.

  3. Left by Qasim Khan via LinkedIn:

    Children working in such conditions isn’t going to be acceptable to the majority of people, whatever the reason. At the same time, however, turning a blind eye to the origins of valuable resources and products is arguably something we do all too often, simply because it suits us.

    Unfortunately, it isn’t commonplace for the general public to be regularly informed about the origins of such resources/products. After all, how would that benefit supplier profits?! One would hope that, in time, with people like yourselves recognising and highlighting these issues, either someone can develop an alternative resource or perhaps an alternative method of mining cobalt, or more stringent regulations will be put in place as mentioned in your article.

    Well written and informative. The only thing I was left wondering which, granted, may not be publicly accessible information, is whilst the children get paid pennies, who do the corporate powerhouses pay directly in Congo, and how much do they get paid for supplying the cobalt? Whether it’s the government or individuals/SMEs, I’m sure the mining is making some people very wealthy indeed..!

    1. Firstly, thanks a lot for your feedback!

      I agree with your point regarding the majority of us turning a blind eye. It is a shame that we do it, but like you said, we do it because it suits us.

      Engineers developing new designs reducing the effects of such exploitation seems like the most logical solution to many. However, if there is anything that engineering has taught me, it’s that there is always a trade-off!

      It is difficult to avoid using these precious materials in our smartphones and electric cars and replace them with more environmentally friendly resources – if there was a way, we probably would have done it already! So, when we consider that these materials are essentially a necessity to the modern, technologically-driven world, we must harness them in a fair and friendly way. However, fair and friendly are not quantifiable, unfortunately.

      Like you said, who do these massive multinationals pay directly in Congo? And why are the child workers being paid pennies? Seems like there is some hidden paperwork somewhere that would explain this. Yes, you’re right – cobalt mining is surely making some people very wealthy indeed….

  4. Clearly we cannot avoid using cobalt in many 21st century consumer products. It would be harsh to blame engineers and designers for not producing different designs that do not contain cobalt. Even if they could, they would still need the approvement of the managers and key players of these big companies! If the new designs were not as profitable, or required a longer lead time, then they certainly wouldn’t get the nod. That’s the modern technological world unfortunately.

    However, if we as consumers can place more pressure on these multinationals to do more for those at the root of their supply chains who work in terrible conditions, then maybe they will hear us and improve those conditions.

    You don’t need ethical frameworks to tell us that 12 year old children mining for cobalt is morally wrong.

    Good article 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      You are correct, cobalt is an essential material for this 21 century world. Something I have read is that companies are trying to reduce the amount of cobalt within their designs. This is a positive step in stopping exploitation.

      I also agree with the consumer applying more pressure. This is possibly similar to the fair-trade initiative. If the sellers saw that their pockets were being hit by a reduction in sales due to people not buying their products would help. A similar sign like that used by fair-trade could he used so that the cobalt in the devices came from an ethical source could be introduced.

      What do you think?

  5. Ultimately, how can the impetuous be on engineers to come up with alternative solutions when the executives controlling these multinationals are only interested in the bottom line, and will continue to exploit third-world resources until a cheaper solution is found? I agree that more investment in infrastructure must be committed to the DRC, but their country’s corruption is so rife that only government intervention can help it, and privately-owned companies are under no obligation to do so, however morbid that may feel.
    Great article in bringing attention to such an important issue, video at the end was very helpful too!

    1. Thanks for your response.

      You make a great point! These high-earning execs will probably only really care about profits and until a cheaper solution is found, there will be no change in how they operate. Engineers cannot be to blame for this, can they?

      It is true what you say about government intervention. Surely this issue must be a governmental one? The miners are Congolese people and the government needs to protect them! Private multinationals are not breaking any laws because the government has allowed that so.

  6. Not defining Cobalt as a ‘conflict mineral’ seems to me to be a loophole created by governing bodies to save face. If this is the case then I seems many at that level lack a morale compass, or perhaps thats what you need to operate at that level. Regardless of how cobalt is defined now, there needs to be an immediate re-evaluation of the legislations involved in this topic. Irrespective of the ‘greater good’, child exploitation cannot happen!

    Thanks for bringing this topic to light

    1. The topic certainly is interesting and I was surprised I did not know more about it when I first came across the issue. I think that the fact that this issue is not common knowledge is part of the reason that there is such leniency when condemning the methods used to mine cobalt. Perhaps more of public profile would force the hand of governing bodies to rethink their description of a conflict mineral.
      Although perhaps governing bodies are taking a utilitarian approach, as there is a case that the needs of the few do not outweigh the needs of the many. Methods of lowering the usage of fossil fuels are very important.
      There clearly is a need for a rethink of the situation for all parties concerned and more people joining the debate can only be beneficial for finding a solution where nobody is exploited and the potential of Cobalt can be maximised.

  7. The DRC clearly have a very valuable resource at their disposal. Cobalt is their crude oil and of course they need to utilise its extraction to benefit the country. I believe that with the money that cobalt provides for their economy, many are not willing to highlight its social problems and suggest it as a ‘conflict material’ – this could bring unwanted problems for them.

    Has the government effectively communicated with multinationals with regards to ensuring their people have fair pay? And the other way around? If I was an executive of one of these big companies purchasing huge quantities of cobalt from the DRC, I would want to know how this material was being mined and whether the miners were being treated fairly. As pointed out in another comment, a lack of morale compass is likely what you need to be an executive at that level, because these executives must be aware of the social impacts that this material has at the root of their supply chain!
    We need to revaluate the laws surrounding cobalt mining and ensure that children (and adults!) are not being exploited. Would we be saying that they are being exploited if they were earning $30k per year? Maybe not.

    So, let’s pay these workers more, ensure better working conditions and better working hours! It is a governmental and corporate responsibility to do so.

  8. Clearly cobalt is going to continue to be a valuable mineral in order to service the increasing shift to electric cars. Those mining Cobalt in the DRC, particularly should be required to sign up to an ethical framework, which also forbids child labour. Developed countries must sign up to this ethical framework and companies who flout this should be prosecuted in their home countries. In addition, mining companies should sign up to an infrastructure programme which they oversee directly to improve the quality of life of the local people. There should be accountability to this and companies should be required to publish their contributions. Considering the recent history of the DRC – it is important that Cobalt is designated as a ‘conflict mineral’ to protect local people and enable local resources to benefit local populations. We could also start by requiring ‘source’ to be declared on goods. The key users of Cobalt have both a moral and social duty and most certainly have the clout to effect change, improve the life of deprived and vulnerable people – if inclined to do so.. We need the press and social media to help make this more of a ‘thing’.

    1. Thanks for the comment

      I couldn’t agree more in terms of your suggested plan of action. Clearly the main issue is to eradicate any form of child labour/exploitation, and as you mentioned, if companies are caught still practicing this they should be prosecuted. The problem is how long would it take put these solutions into action.
      There will be large opposition from multinationals, that would prolong any sort of legal realignment. Morality tends not to be a big issue for global higher ups as long as they continue to make money.
      Your approach would surely work step by step, with the primary target being the safeguarding of children. I agree that a social media presence would aid the problem, as all the comments reflect, people in the main don’t want others to suffer for there own potential gain.

  9. This is such an important issue not only for DCR but for the whole world. Thanks for raising this. How can we just turn a blind eye to child labour? Surely in today’s advancing technology it should be possible to use another material or resource. Users of Cobalt surely should have not only a legal duty but moral duty too. Inhuman conditions these children are forced to live in should put all the users to public shame. Well done for bringing to our attention.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      Unfortunately from our group research no one has yet developed a replacement for cobalt in these key technologies. There is development in reducing the amount of cobalt within Li ion batteries which to me seems a good place to start. However, I believe that intervention in the country is needed to completely eradicate this exploitation, especially within the government which is clearly corrupt.

      In the DRC the political, economical and social situation has made the country a mess. Tribes are fighting with each other in the North of the country killing women and children as well as money seemingly disappearing from the countries government accounts. Something big needs to change!

  10. I agree it is important question whether multinational companies would regulate the acquisition of cobalt or provide fairer pay/working conditions. I think, in reality, the main interest of these companies is profit and appearing to care about the working conditions to the public rather than actually doing anything concrete to improve the lives of the child workers. The companies would surely think: if what they are doing is legal why change their practices? I worry that multinational companies have so much influence that they can effectively bypass any ethical debate since their interests would dominate the interests of the workers.

    Therefore, in this sense, I think the development of new designs by engineers is a much more ethically responsible option since convincing multinationals to change their ways is very difficult.

    1. Thanks for your response!

      I agree with your point that the main interest of these multinationals is profit. I also think you’re right in saying that appearing to care is much easier to them than actually doing anything concrete to improve the situation.

      It seems like multinationals now have as much power as the governments as a result of the millions that they secure for their respective economies. If they are not doing anything illegal, are they really going to change? Unlikely.

      It is interesting to read your thought that it should be the responsibility of engineers to produce new designs. I’m not sure to what extent I agree, but your reasoning that multinationals are generally unwilling to change their ways and ultimately affect their profits is as undeniably effective argument. Thanks again!

  11. This was a very thought-provoking article, I had never considered the dark implications of electric vehicles before. In the media, electric cars are sold as a super clean futuristic technology, when from this article it appears there is darker, more sinister side to their production.

    However, I feel the need to shift to more sustainable living will still warrant the pursuit of electric cars, even if we have to overcome the problems to do with cobalt mining. I agree with your conclusion that we need to invest more in the DRC and provide fair pay and proper working conditions.

    1. Thank you for your response!

      You’re right in saying that there is a darker implication of these ‘green’ vehicles.

      The media will have to carry on regarding electric vehicles as the way forward because soon that is all that the public will be able to buy from manufacturers and so public perception will be critical to ensuring the success of the Paris agreement! I also imagine there are links between these multinationals and the media to ensure that there is no light shed on the more ‘sinister’ side of electric vehicles, hence why many people are surprised by the information provided in this article!

      People would be less concerned with the way in which the cobalt is mined if companies and governments worked together to ensure that there is fair pay and better working conditions, however this is not the case at the moment.

  12. A very powerful article, it makes you realise how privileged you are to be reading such an article in the comfort of your home on a laptop. I agree that the responsibility lies with the corporate companies. Considering their immense financial power and technical expertise. It would not take much for them to give something back to the community that provides such a key component for there consumer products, whether that be financial investment or use of engineers to improve mining facilities.

    A key part in changing such issues I believe is education, if people really knew how much destruction and suffering the latest technological gadget was creating would they be so keen to fuel the corporate machine?

    Or perhaps it is too late for humanity to change, by applying determinism, is enforced child labour an incredibly disappointing reality that has existed and always will. With no level of infrastructure capable of changing the ways of those in a position to exploit it, I for one hope not.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      I do agree, the multinationals do have a responsibility with the huge profits they make to improve conditions and put these children into schools where they should be.

      I thought a good idea would be to use a sign such as fair-trade to show consumers the cobalt came from an ethical source. This would help with educating the public as they would want to research what the sign meant. however, this would probably take world governments to instate a new law which seems unlikely.

      I do hold hope that one day child labour will be stopped. However, it is still a long way off until governments and companies get together to instate new laws and ethical workings.

  13. Really fascinating article. It is so easy to overlook all of the components of a supply chain when making purchasing decisions. It is so sad that the DRC which is so mineral rich does not allow for improved standards of living for the people working there.

    1. Thank you for your response!

      Yes it is particularly hard to track the source of the cobalt as there are subsidiaries that purchase them from the DRC to smuggle the resources out and sell them to the large multinationals. The mineral is transported on the backs of young children, and unfortunately there is simply no way to reliably track the source of the cobalt when it is purchased. If it wasn’t smuggled out, the DRC could use the much-needed revenue to improve their infrastructure and safety regulation.

  14. enjoyed reading this. The story of Arthur was striking and exposed the central ethical dilemmas in a straightforward accessible way.
    Clearly lasting solutions rest with the longer term social and economic development and reduction of inequality in the DRC. How individuals living in the UK can effect governance and movement towards a more responsible capitalism internationally , is the challenge.
    What is the ethical responsibility of an individual engineer beyond good standards of professional practise ? How can someone motivated to act because of their own ethical concerns , help in this sort of situation ?.
    Knowing about, understanding and highlighting the issue is central to generating wider public support and political pressure for change. This sort of article is an important part of that process.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      I do agree that an engineer cannot do more than work ethically. The only viable option I can see is to either reduce the amount of cobalt in the Li-ion batteries or find a way, if possible, to completely remove the cobalt from the batteries.

      I believe for their to be real change to the working conditions and elimination of child labour is a governmental change. This would be in the form of free schools for the children to attend and providing support to families who cannot survive without the income from the child labour.

    2. The ethical responsibility of the engineers is an interesting avenue to explore. It is difficult for engineers to explore other options to power electric vehicles when the method using cobalt is already successful.
      As mentioned in the article Tesla have secured their own fully ethical source of cobalt in North America, which seems to be an avenue that many other multinationals should follow.
      I agree that there is a difficulty for countries outside the DRC to create change internally, all that can be initially done is apply pressure for change, which you mentioned can be done with press recognition.

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