How Tesla Should Combat Child Labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo


Elon Musk recently announced that Tesla plans to manufacture 20 million electric-powered vehicles by 2030. His bold growth target dovetails with California Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement that he will propose that his state require all new cars and trucks to be non-gasoline powered by 2035. The impetus is clear: Global warming is threatening our planet, and a rapid and dramatic reduction in carbon emissions is essential. Battery-powered vehicles are the most promising alternative, but for the foreseeable future, they depend on cobalt, a mineral found primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where child labor and unsafe mining conditions are common.

The United States Department of Labor has documented the nature and scope of the cobalt problem in the DRC. The department’s most recent global report on child labor concludes that “in 2019, the DRC made no advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.” Research conducted by the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs indicates that government labor inspectors in the DRC “failed to conduct any worksite inspections for the fourth year in a row.”

American automakers are notably missing from this table, including Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, and Tesla.

The report includes a focus on children working in cobalt and copper mines in the DRC and especially in so-called artisanal and small-scale mines. Often located within larger, more formal mining sites, they are populated by small-scale subsistence miners not officially employed by the mining companies who gather minerals and typically sell them to middlemen on open markets. It is estimated that 15 percent to 30 percent of cobalt from the DRC comes from artisanal and small-scale mines.

These miners routinely bring their children to the sites, in part because they have no child-care, local schools are either inaccessible or woefully overcrowded, or because they desperately need more family income. At the mines, each child is given a burlap bag and told to gather small pieces of cobalt by hand.

Though the estimates of children working in these mines vary widely, the U.S. Department of Labor report cites one estimate that “as many as 35,000 of the DRC’s 255,000 artisanal cobalt miners are children.” It concludes that these informal or illegal artisanal and small-scale mines operations are “leaving children uniquely exposed to hazardous working conditions and, in some instances, forced labor.” 

In a report published last month by the World Economic Forum, Dorothee Baumann-Pauly, a colleague of mine at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, describes current conditions at three large mining sites. Based on her visit to the DRC last fall, the report makes a series of thoughtful and practical recommendations.

First, it calls on companies that rely on cobalt to power their products to acknowledge their reliance on DRC-mined cobalt and the attendant risks and responsibilities. More than 70 percent of all cobalt mining globally takes place in the DRC, and most of the known reserves are there as well. If companies intend to source cobalt from the DRC, they need to commit to addressing child labor and mine safety as business priorities.

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Baumann-Pauly urges companies to help formalize artisanal mining activities and set up robust monitoring systems. This will help ensure that children don’t go to the mines and encourage local authorities to provide them decent schooling. Within the mines a formalized process will help to set safety standards and a system to apply them—measures, for example, that would limit the depth of pits and provide protective gear.

In her report, Baumann-Pauly, who also directs the new Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights at the University of Geneva, cites a pilot project at Mutoshi overseen by Trafigura, a large Swiss-based commodity trading firm that has a significant commercial presence in the DRC. Trafigura helped Baumann-Pauly gain access to that mine. She sees it as offering some insight into how this might work in practice.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Baumann-Pauly makes a compelling case for collective action by those working throughout the cobalt supply chain. This includes local mine owners, commodity traders, battery makers, and global buyers such as auto companies and consumer electronics firms.

Fortunately, some mostly European companies have come together to wrestle with these daunting challenges. They have joined a new initiative called the Cobalt Action Partnership. Its aim is to create industry-wide human rights standards and metrics, as well as a system to implement those standards and assess compliance.

Among the leaders of this collective effort are German automakers BMW and Volkswagen, battery material manufacturer BASF, and Trafigura. The partnership aims to work closely with local actors in the DRC. This includes the government, mine owners, civil society organizations, and mine workers themselves to build an effective system to combat child labor and address unsafe working conditions. Companies that adopt and are deemed compliant with these standards would be able to assure their customers that they are addressing child-labor and mine-safety issues. 

American automakers are notably missing from this table, including Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, and Tesla. Several years ago, Musk vowed he would avoid sourcing from the DRC altogether, instead relying on North American mines, which account for less than 4 percent of the global reserves.

If he is forecasting the production of 20 million electric vehicles in a decade, this clearly will not be enough. Alternatively, Musk is promising that his firm is developing a new cobalt-free battery technology. Yet, as his firm and others pursue these new technologies, many experts estimate that it will be a decade before any of the alternatives are commercially available at scale.

So, not surprisingly, in June, Tesla announced a partnership with Glencore. This is one of the world’s largest commodity trading firms, which also is mining cobalt in the DRC, for lithium-ion batteries. Tesla plans to purchase cobalt from Glencore to manufacture its own batteries in Germany and China. This partnership, coupled with Musk’s ambitious plans to lead in the global production of electric vehicles, should compel both companies to come to the table with their competitors and to join the collective effort to end child labor and support responsible cobalt mining in the DRC.

Michael Posner is the Jerome Kohlberg professor of ethics and finance at NYU Stern School of Business and director of the Center for Business and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter @mikehposner.

Reprinted with permission from Forbes.

Lead photograph is courtesy of Dorothee Baumann-Pauly.