Children and teens mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Children and teens mining for metals needed for batteries in electric vehicles at the Kipushi and Kilolo mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Video: UNICEF)
JOHANNESBURG — Children forced to work in appalling conditions, allegedly from as young as 4 years old, are putting the Biden administration’s green energy plans at controversial risk, particularly when it comes to metals needed for batteries in electric vehicles (EVs)
The metal cobalt is the “blood diamond” of battery materials.
Many EV manufacturers crave it, as it makes electric vehicles go faster and further. But U.S. carmakers are stepping through a human rights minefield to get it and other battery ingredients.
And while some U.S. companies agonize over whether they should be the unacceptable face of green energy by buying controversially mined cobalt, China, sources say, has no such scruples and has surged ahead to become the biggest EV manufacturer in the world.
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Boys working at a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (UNICEF)
An estimated 70% of the world’s cobalt is produced in the the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in West Africa, according to Michigan State University’s Global Edge Research Organization.
“Biden’s renewable energy crusade exploits and enslaves thousands in poor nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where children as young as 4 are forced to mine cobalt “Jason Isaac told Fox News Digital. Isaac is the founder and CEO of the American Energy Institute.
“The human suffering caused by mining for electric vehicle batteries and wind turbine construction is unimaginable — as is the environmental destruction caused by these mines and their toxic byproducts.”
The problem affects Europe too.
“Cobalt is a critical component in rechargeable car batteries, and the European Union’s 2030 climate target will only increase demand for this metal,” Czech politician Tomáš Zdechovský told the European Parliament last year.
“Despite the commission’s zero‑tolerance approach to child labor in trade agreements, it is estimated, according to reports by UN agencies, that in the southern Katanga province, more than 40,000 children are working in hazardous conditions in cobalt mines with inadequate safety equipment and for very little money.”
Miners working at a cobalt mine in the DRC Oct. 12, 2022. (Junior Kannah/AFP via Getty Images)
This work, often described as modern-day child slavery, pays children $5 a day — or less — with them often having to work long hours in unsupported tunnels up to 100 yards underground, exposed to cancer-causing chemicals.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) is trying to stop what some claim is a form of child abuse.
“The sustainable development goals set a target for the elimination of child labor of 2025, and we are far from achieving it,” Ben Smith, senior technical officer, child labor, told Fox News Digital.
“Labor in cobalt mining is a serious violation of children’s rights that puts the health and safety, and even the lives of many children, at risk. This vicious cycle of poverty and child labor must be broken for the sake of the children exposed to this harsh reality and for the social and economic progress of countries like the DRC.”
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A young boy said to be mining for cobalt in a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (UNICEF)
A State Department spokesperson told Fox News Digital that last year the U.S. and several other governments launched the Minerals Security Partnership “to promote public and private investment in responsible critical minerals supply chains, to ensure that critical minerals are produced, processed and recycled according to the highest environmental, social and governance standards.”
The spokesperson noted, “Communities in the DRC deserve to receive long-term benefits from their mineral resources during the global transition to clean energy, but this will require companies and government to follow through on sound policy.
“The State Department and broader U.S. government continue to engage the government of the DRC through bilateral diplomacy and foreign assistance to increase efforts to combat human trafficking, including child forced labor.”
Sacks of cobalt powder on a truck for export at the Etoile mine operated by Chemaf Sarl in Katanga province near Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of Congo Dec. 22, 2021. (Lucien Kahozi/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Then there’s the China factor. On cobalt and EVs, the U.S. is but a small player. Eighty percent of the DRC’s industrial cobalt mines are owned or financed by Chinese companies, according to a 2022 report by Michigan State.
While Isaac told Fox News Digital he condemned “China’s long and public history of human rights atrocities,” he recognized the potential for fallout for the U.S.
“Maintaining human rights as a top priority may mean the United States loses a competitive edge in electric vehicle manufacturing, but it also means we’ll be on the right side of history,” Isaac said.
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People working at a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (UNICEF)
Already, the race for EV sales is lost.
“Without a doubt, the Chinese EV market is several factors higher than the U.S.,” Tyson Jominy, VP of customer success data & analytics division at J.D. Power told Fox News Digital. “Year to date, the U.S. market has sold 960,000 EVs to retail consumers and slightly over 1.1 million to all channels, including fleet customers.”
And China? For pretty much the same period, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers has been monitored by J.D. Power to show EV sales of well over 8 million units.
President Biden (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The home of the muscle car — the U.S. — is also now behind on power for its EVs, especially when American manufacturers don’t use cobalt.
Tesla didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from Fox News Digital, but the company issued a 2022 statement boasting of the performance when some of its vehicles are equipped with LFP or lithium iron phosphate batteries, which do not include cobalt.
“As a result of our energy-efficient motors, a (Tesla) Model 3 with an LFP battery pack can achieve a 267-mile range,” the statement said.
Geely, which produces the cobalt-powered Chinese Zeekr 001 EV, claims it can go more than twice as far — 641 miles on a single charge.
“The race for critical minerals can’t come at the expense of human rights,” Gracelin Baskaran, research director, energy security, at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, (CSIS), told Fox News Digital.
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EV charging station (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
“Human rights and mining for the clean energy transition are not mutually exclusive endeavors.”
Isaac would like to see the U.S. doing more, especially when it comes to metals such as mined cobalt ending up in American cars.
“It should take steps to ensure the metals mined for American technology and energy purposes are produced responsibly, without child labor and with strong worker and environmental protection standards,” Isaac said.
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Baskaran emphasized the need for stronger environmental and social safeguards but hammered home the need for green.
“The COP28 ‘Global Stocktake’ has shown that the world is far behind where it needs to be,” Baskaran said. “The only way is to accelerate the clean energy transition, and there is no way we can do that without getting the critical minerals, including cobalt, to drive emissions reduction by deploying clean technology.”
Pope Francis waves to public as he leads the mass at Martyrs Stadium in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Feb. 2, 2023. (Chris Milosi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
At a mass rally early this year in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, Pope Francis dropped his mantle of diplomacy and spoke out in a veiled attack on the users of cobalt and other metals.
“Hands off Africa. Stop choking Africa. It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” the pontiff declared.
Paul Tilsley is a veteran correspondent who has reported on African affairs for more than three decades from Johannesburg, South Africa. He can be followed on Twitter @paultilsley