February 9, 2023: Companies involved in the EV battery manufacturing chain are still not doing enough to ensure the cobalt they use does not involve child labour at unsafe artisanal mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a report published on February 8.
A pilot project to formalize health and safety standards at one artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) site — backed by key global mining players including Trafigura and Chemaf Resources — ended in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, says the white paper* published by the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights and the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.
Now the paper is urging global firms buying cobalt to redouble efforts to encourage the responsible extraction of cobalt, “rather than engaging in a futile attempt to avoid cobalt associated with ASM — an attempt that also ignores the sustenance that artisanal mining provides to millions of poor people”.
Trafigura’s head of social responsibility, James Nicholson, told Batteries International that all players must now work together for a sustainable cobalt supply chain.
The paper is based on a visit to the DRC last December by its author, professor Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, the director of the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights at the Geneva School for Economics and Management and research director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.
The visit was to check on the progress at the Mutoshi ASM site in the south of the DRC, which had been formalized in 2018 — meaning that miners who extract the cobalt with basic tools were given access to a mechanically prepared mine site with open pits where site-safety standards were implemented among other measures.
A key element of formalization at Mutoshi was the full integration of women into artisanal mining. The extra income the women earned allowed families to pay for more of their children to attend school rather than work in the mining area and so reduce child labour.
However, the paper says local restrictions as a result of Covid lockdowns that began in March 2020 truncated the “promising” ASM pilot.
The pandemic threatened to severely tax the medical capacity of a country that generally struggles to provide basic healthcare to its more than 90 million citizens.
The paper says Chemaf and Trafigura arranged for alternative means for local residents to earn money, including making facial masks, disinfectant, and soap. But these pursuits did not provide viable alternatives to mining, which continued, now largely unsupervised.
Baumann-Pauly’s December visit discovered many formalization standards were no longer observed. These included artisanal miners no longer wearing protective equipment such as helmets, gloves, uniforms, and boots and many were barefoot.
Mining accidents had become common again, with more than 15,000 miners, including children, coming to work at the site, instead of 5,000, according to the local miners’ cooperative.
Other ASM sites in the DRC had different practices and scant attention to safety procedures. Two sites are extracting cobalt ore without any machinery and artisanal miners are instead digging deep to reach the ore.
At one site, a fence that once prevented unregistered miners from entering the mining site had gone and “relatively safe open mine pits had been replaced by about 150 poorly ventilated and unstable shafts that lead to deep vertical and long horizontal tunnels, which are far more hazardous”.
According to the paper, Chinese buyers run around 30 depots close to cobalt ASM sites in the DRC, where the quality of the ore is assessed and a price is determined.
Miners have no bargaining power over prices or the volumes they can sell, the paper says. Previously, under formalization, Chemaf oversaw an arrangement that allowed miners to sell their ore at prices they considered fair.
However, the paper says while the Mutoshi project was only in effect for around two years, the formalization of the ASM mine site left a positive legacy on which to develop best practice.
Cobalt-consuming companies, together with other stakeholders, must now clarify what ASM formalization means in concrete terms, the paper says.
Governments of countries where major global cobalt buyers are based need to engage diplomatically with the DRC government to support its enforcement of strong human rights standards.
Trafigura’s James Nicholson said: “ASM production contributes significant volumes to the international cobalt supply chain. This material is produced in an unregulated unsafe environment where human rights abuses are commonplace. Trafigura calls on all those active in the supply chain to work together to formalize the sector and ensure that it contributes to sustainable development.”
Chinese battery giant CATL said last September that cobalt and lithium used in a battery cells supply deal with Germany’s BMW would be sourced from “certified mines”, in a move to head-off potential criticism over sustainability and human rights issues.
*The white paper is online.
Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights and the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights photo: An artisanal miner at Mutoshi peers up from the sort of hand-dug shaft that poses a risk of collapse