Producing a battery is resource intensive and demand for metals like cobalt, copper and nickel is soaring. To fill that demand, artisanal miners in the Congo are digging deep, working under terrible conditions and with death as a looming risk. What are stakeholders doing to prevent human rights violations in their supply chains?
A group of experts gathered last week at Lund University for Sustainability Week to discuss these so-called “blood batteries” and talk about the dark side of renewable energy. The workshop gave us four perspectives on blood batteries and how they are extracted in conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Myanmar.
Radu Mares, associate professor at RWI, opened the discussion, and the other panelists were:
- Théo Jaekel, senior specialist in human rights and supply chain at Swedish law firm Vinge.
- Philip Peck, associate professor at the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE).
- Albin Wilson, development strategist at Uniti Sweden AB.
The common thread amongst all the different presentations and speakers was that the supply chain in this industry is very extensive, complex and hard to trace since the materials can come from different parts of the world to build even a simple product like a computer mouse.
Mares introduced the topic by defining conflict minerals and talking about the policy and legal frameworks for combatting illegal mining in place in OECD countries, the EU and US. He also spoke about the measures the US and EU has taken to implement a responsible sourcing framework.
Jaekel argued that boycotting countries like the DRC won’t help their situation since Congolese workers are working on individual basis and are not employed by a particular company. He said workers at mining sites in the DRC and Myanmar face huge health and safety challenges since there is a lack of simple safety equipment, such as helmets. He said workers extracting these minerals are only able to work for ten years since their bodies break down at a young age. One worker was quoted to have said:
My pension is my children.
Citing data from the EU on 40,000 children working with cobalt extraction in the DRC, Jaekel said there are there are “very challenging and gross inhumane conditions” at these sites. He concluded this dark portrayal of the situation on a positive note by stating:
If you think it’s business as usual then you are mistaken.
The actors buying these services are now being pressured by NGOs and their customers to stop buying these cheap illegal services.
While Jaekel painted a bleak picture, Philip Peck gave a more positive image of the situation, arguing that risky countries attract risky businesses but that “good companies like fair rules and transparent countries”. He did identify one challenge, in “making dirty, homogenous mineral products traceable again with problematic supply chains.”
The last presenter, Albin Wilson mentioned how there are initiatives and products such as “fairphone” that have created the world’s first ethical, modular smartphone. That there is a possibility to make a product that is good and also has a fair supply chain.